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The Red Shoes and the Beauty of Obsession

on February 25, 2016, 2:00pm

If The Red Shoes was a bad movie, but with all the dancing intact, it would still be remarkable. Watch the film’s central ballet alone and you’re seeing one of the greatest sequences ever committed to celluloid. But even though the ballet scenes are easily the film’s most striking, dance is a bit of a red herring. The Red Shoes isn’t a dance movie. There’s no way to say this without sounding like a pretentious asshole, so here goes: The Red Shoes is a movie about life.

Go ahead and vomit now. I’ll wait.

Back? Me, too. But not with an apology, because that’s the truth. If you want to be more specific about the masterpiece created by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (also known as The Archers), it’s about life in art — and about the necessity of giving up that little thing we call “having a life” in order to create said art, and vice versa — but life will do. There are many ways to live, many sacrifices one can make in order to chase a dream, but if the dream is to give yourself over to something entirely … well, be ready for trouble. There’s only one of you. No two things can possess you completely, and the rest of your life may not go down without a fight. Neither art nor happiness can be pursued half-heartedly.

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If any of this makes your stomach knot, then get ready for The Red Shoes. In 1948, Laurence Olivier’s highly condensed Hamlet became the first British film ever to win Best Picture. It began with Olivier’s voice summing up his own film, but what he said could just as easily apply to the other British nominee that year — and the film that, for my money, should have won. “This is the tragedy of a man,” he intoned, “who could not make up his mind.”

Switch the gender and you have a neat summary of the conflict faced by Victoria Page. As played by the luminous (an overused word, justly applied here) Moira Shearer, a ballerina making her film debut, Victoria begins the film with only one desire: to dance. Her drive steers her into the path of ballet luminary Boris Lermontov (the remarkable Anton Walbrook), who is completely uninterested until he sees that glint of possession in her eyes. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks her. “Why do you want to live?” she responds.

Thus begins the pas de deux, equal parts inspiring and terrifying, between two artists. Theirs is not a connection of love. Lermontov’s interest never seems romantic, and the film hints none too subtly at his homosexuality; a character tells him he can’t alter human nature, and he responds, “No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it!” Instead, it’s a symbiotic relationship between creator and interpreter, between painter and muse. Page’s bone-deep need to dance fuels Lermontov’s creative fires, which in turn reinforces Page’s need, which feeds Lermontov and on and on and on.

Thus, the titular ballet. Lermontov tasks a young composer, Julian Craster, with finishing another artist’s incomplete score (a nifty parallel to the actual story of the film’s creation), and before the request itself has even been completed, the music begins to fill Craster’s mind. He’s merely the first to find himself possessed by The Red Shoes, Hans Christian Anderson’s incredibly grim fairy tale about a girl whose footwear takes control and dances her to death. The dance is Page and Lermontov’s, but the fever seems to be catching, with every member of the ballet company pushing harder and reaching further in pursuit of something astonishing. No one’s pushed harder than Victoria — Lermontov even controls how much water she drinks — and when the time comes to perform this thing that’s so consumed them, it’s into Victoria’s mind that we step.

You learn everything you need to know about what comes next in that central, 20-minute ballet. It’s hallucinogenic, non-literal — no stage in the world has ever looked like that — and more about Victoria’s inner conflict than it is about Anderson’s tale. She’s consumed by her art but beginning, ever so slowly, to fall in love with the very person whose music underscores her thoughts. On one side, the man who would make her a truly great artist. On the other, the man who could make her happy. On her feet, the red shoes. How could anyone not be torn apart?

You know what’s coming, but not how, and it’s not the particulars of the plot that matter. “We had all been told for 10 years to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” wrote Michael Powell in his memoir. “…Now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” There’s a choice implicit in that statement: die for art, or live without it.

Whatever Powell and Pressburger sacrificed of themselves to get the film made, whatever deal with the devil or pound of flesh it required, it seems to have been worth it. The Red Shoes is a terrifying, visually stunning piece of filmmaking, and its distinctive aesthetic (thanks largely to the Oscar-winning work of German painter and theatre artist Hein Heckroth) keeps its surrealist landscapes from seeming even the least bit dated. Even the smaller moments can be haunting: Lermontov punches a mirror, but not before we see that, for the very first time, he’s got a hair out of place; Victoria mounts the weed-covered steps of Lermontov’s home, a residence that’s been let go to slight ruin (since nothing else matters but the dance); two unseen artists march up and down a row of red shoes, looking for the exact right shade.

While beloved by cinephiles — Martin Scorsese cites the film as a favorite and personally spearheaded a seven-year restoration effort, the results of which can be seen on Criterion’s DVD release — The Red Shoes seems to have slipped from the larger cultural memory. It’s unlikely to come up in a round of pub trivia or shown in a double-feature with All About Eve (another great backstage film, which won the big award two years later). But watch it, and try not to wonder about who else is making such a choice, what artist is running away from a life of warmth and love in pursuit of a beast that never stops feeding. Watch and just try to forget it.

“The red shoes,” Lermontov says, “are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired.”