“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. ”
This is a line spoken by Boris Lermontov, the character played by Anton Walbrook in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s visually sumptuous tale of a ballerina, her lover and the impresario who stands between them. Born out of the wonderfully vivid and vastly imaginative minds of two of cinema’s greatest legends, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film explores a great dilemma of every true artist – that of making the difficult choice between the pursuit of creative ambition and the yearning for true love – in grand fashion. Powell and Pressburger weave their tale around these three principal characters: The promising ballerina is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), the brilliant and ambitious young composer is Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and the intimidating and charismatic impresario is Boris Lermontov, of whom I have previously mentioned.
Lermontov disapproves of anyone who abandons their promising career for love. When one of his promising ballerinas leaves his company, he makes a cold-hearted display of indifference towards her. Though her attempts to get noticed by Lermontov are ignored at first, Victoria finally wins him over with one of her impressive performances which he happens to witness. Lermontov recognizes her potential and casts her in his production of a new ballet called “The Red Shoes”, for which Julian will compose the score. This ballet, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is about a young peasant girl who comes into the possession of a pair of magical red shoes. When she puts them on, they completely take over her life and eventually drive her to her death. When Lermontov makes arrangements for the show to open in Monte Carlo, it is met with a huge applause. Ecstatic with its success, he begins making plans for Victoria’s future and treats her like a queen. But when he learns that Victoria has fallen in love with Julian, he is outraged.
When most British filmmakers, including David Lean, were content with making black-and-white films in the 1940s, Powell and Pressburger (collectively known as The Archers) were thinking big. A majority of their films are characterized by their colorful characters, enchanting visuals and imaginative storytelling. It all started with their 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and from there on they never looked back. This film was followed by A Matter of Life and Death (known in the U.S Stairway to Heaven) in 1946, Black Narcissus in 1947 and then The Red Shoes in 1948. Each of these films was shot in stunning Technicolor and served as testaments to the duo’s filmmaking genius. Through The Red Shoes, they brought together two of the finest art forms: cinema and dance, and did it in a way that other directors can only dream of. Speaking of dreams, that’s exactly what these films look like. It was only after seeing this film that Gene Kelly was inspired to make two of Hollywood’s greatest musicals: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.
You can also feel its strong influence in a recent film, Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Vincent Cassel’s character seems to be clearly modeled on Lermontov. It seems the inspiration for the character of Lermontov came to the Archers from Alexander Korda, a Hungarian-born British film producer-director. The film was originally meant to be made in the 1930s and was to star Korda’s future wife Merle Oberon. As Lermontov, Walbrook is a towering presence and is easily my favorite character in the film. This immensely sophisticated Austrian actor had a supporting role in another Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a sympathetic German officer. Lermontov is an enigmatic figure and in my opinion, he is one of those characters that deserve to be studied by film historians and students. It’s hard to tell what drives him. And what exactly does he feel towards his ballerinas? Is it love or simply possessiveness?
The main highlight of the film is the splendid 17-minute “The Red Shoes” ballet, an astonishingly surreal and dazzlingly choreographed sequence that makes a stunning display of light, colors, and photographic effects (courtesy of cinematographer Jack Cardiff). The film won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Music. To lend the film a sense of authenticity, they cast some of the very eminent figures from the world of ballet. Robert Helpmann, another expert in ballet, served as choreographer and he, along with the others like Léonide Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina, was cast in supporting roles. Moira Shearer, who plays Victoria, used to have a promising ballet career with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company. She also proved to be a talented actress and would also go on to star in their subsequent films, The Tales of Hoffman as well as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.