The Red Shoes (1948)

Michael Powell | 2hr 14min

When the much-touted Ballet of the Red Shoes finally opens for Ballet Lermontov, Michael Powell sets us a good distance back in the audience to watch the majestic red curtains slowly part. For a brief moment we might believe we are going to watch a small excerpt of this adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale play out from this angle, perhaps before fading into the bows, or the audience reaction afterwards. What we get instead is a 17-minute sequence of musical, cinematic bliss that may lay honest claim to the greatest demonstration of Technicolor on film in the 1940s. 
As the stage disappears, we are immersed in a vibrant, expressionist world that towers far taller than any regular theatre ceiling. The camera moves with vigour, following the young heroine as she dances through elaborate, layered compositions of carnivals, oceans, clifftops, and undefined, surreal nightmares. Forcing her to keep moving along are her magical red shoes, sold to her by a mysterious street peddler, whose long, daunting shadow later clutches at her when she tries to rid herself of the curse and return home. Canted angles, montages, visual effects which teleport the young woman from one setting to the next – Powell is throwing his full arsenal of stylistic techniques at this ballet, pulling us into the mind of both the bewitched young heroine and the woman who plays her, Vicky. Acting out this heightened, fantastical microcosm of reality, Vicky imagines the two opposing forces in her character’s life as the most important men in her own, marvellously super-imposed over their counterparts.

The proscenium arch disappears as Powell lets these expressionist, theatrical sets become an entire world.
Inexorable ambition, both in Vicky and the character she plays in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.
Still in the early days of Technicolor film, Powell was crafting all-time wonderful images such as these.
The challenge here is choosing only a few images to lift from this breath-taking 17-minute dance sequence, which disappears into boundless imagination.

This extended, wordless interlude splits the film into two halves, the first of which follows Vicky and her musical collaborator, Julian, along two intertwining paths of ambition. At first they circle each other in theatres and rehearsal rooms, and then over time their innocent interactions evolve into a kind, tender love. They are still set on their careers, but the sharp words of their strict mentor, Boris Lermontov, hang over Vicky’s head as she falls prey to her romantic desires. 

“The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.” 

Regardless of whether this is universally true, Lermontov creates a self-fulfilling prophecy merely in speaking these words, forcing a gut-wrenching choice upon Vicky. By invoking the Red Shoes in his final temptation, he comes to personify them, setting in motion the same downfall as that suffered by her character. Powell often bridges scenes with elegant long dissolves, and after one particularly warm embrace between Vicky and Julian he uses such a fade to impose the next shot of Lermontov over the top, shattering the romance with his threatening presence. 

It’s not just Powell’s colours that astound, but also his long dissolves working to combine images as we see here.

Beyond the stage, Powell’s displays of rich colour and theatrical lighting make their way into offices, dressing rooms, and rehearsal spaces, surrounding our three leads in a world of spectacle. There is detail in the arrangement of hues as tiny as the fruits which lay across Lermontov’s desk upon his first meeting with Julian, and then on the corner of the table, our eyes are drawn to a vivid flourish of orange flowers. From here, blossoms continue to adorn almost every interior in this film, with the full spectrum of coloured petals growing in number as Vicky finds more success in her pursuit of greatness. 

From Julian and Boris’ first meeting…
…to Victoria’s final show. Flowers are everywhere, always vibrant in their multi-coloured beauty.
Matching costumes to the surrounding décor, 16 years before Jacques Demy would make it part of his stylistic repertoire in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

As for her internal struggle between lifestyles, Powell chooses to represent this with red and white patterns, splashing these colours of passion and tranquillity across her wide-eyed, sweaty face and lavish costumes. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the same scheme is used to similar effect in Black Narcissus, or that these are two of the best displays of Technicolor in Powell’s career. His control over these very specific palettes all through The Red Shoes goes beyond the crafting of immaculate compositions, as it furthermore binds us so tightly to Vicky’s mental state, that we can’t help but be plunged right into the psychological depths of her pure, self-destructive ambition.

A pair of images from Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell returning to his red and white colour palette in makeup and costume as a reflection of passion and purity.
A gorgeous melding of blocking, architecture, and colours in this stunning composition.

The Red Shoes is available to stream on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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