“I will make you the greatest dancer the world has ever known”: The Red Shoes, and the blurred lines
In Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale ‘The Red Shoes’ (Danish: De røde sko), a maiden is cursed to dance in a pair of red shoes for the rest of her life as punishment for her vanity.
Yes, there is a maiden, yes, there is a pair of red shoes involved, and yes, these red shoes inflict a curse on her that lead to her untimely death.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film, The Red Shoes, isn’t a fable—at least, not at first glance. But the film is far from fable. It follows a young ballerina, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), who joins the Ballet Lermentov ballet company, owned by Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook). After her casting in ‘The Ballet of The Red Shoes’, her devotion to ballet is tested.
The Red Shoes is often cited as the predecessor to films such as Whiplash and The Black Swan, that imagine the daunting decisions—mainly about the personal—an artist must make in the face of their ambition. When Victoria and Lermentov first meet, the following exchange takes place:
LERMENTOV: Why do you want to dance?
VICTORIA: Why do you want to live?
LERMENTOV: Well I don’t know exactly why, but...I must
VICTORIA: That’s my answer too.
From the get-go, we learn of Victoria’s love for dance: she lives it, she breathes it, she becomes it. The film blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, particularly in its 17-minute ballet sequence, but the influence of the fairy tale is more pronounced in the second half of the film. Just like the Danish maiden, Vicky is overtaken by the red shoes that dance her way to her death. In the harrowing final scene of the film, Vicky, bleeding to death on a stretcher, asks for them to be taken off. As Roger Ebert writes in his review, “Yes, the ending is a shocker, but you see it coming and there's no way around it; the movie tells us a fairy tale and then repeats it as real life”. The imagery of these stark red shoes lives on, as a reminder of the destruction brought over by overambition.
The film is also lauded for its use of Technicolour: it’s a playground for the eyes, dripping with colour from scene to scene, but pulling back when needed. For example, Lermentov hides behind curtains and slips into dark shadows, constantly shrouded in black, symbolising Vicky’s untapped ambitions. The use of colour also hints at Vicky’s character arc.
Red has historically symbolised passon, love, anger, and madness; and Vicky experiences them all in the course of the film.
And then, of course, there are the shoes themselves. The shoes are what make her the star of the company, are the basis of the ballet that introduced her to her true love and are what lead her to her doom. She, with her fiery red hair and the red shoes, is the personification of the ballet.
Artists tend to get lost in their own works—to live and breathe creativity—as they believe it is the most conducive to good art. But at what point should we turn around and find our way back to reality? The Red Shoes may not be able to answer that, but it does warn us of two things: that ambitions can be costly, and that you should stay far, far away from a pair of red shoes.