De Røde Sko
”The Red Shoes” is a romantic ballet movie based on a romantic ballet fairy tale. If you think this sounds like a drag I would not blame you. This is however no drag, but in fact an excellent and beautiful movie certainly worthy of attention.
The story is based on a fairy tale by H.C. Andersen. I am afraid I do not know that fairy tale, though I do know that he had some sort of crush on a ballerina called Louise Heiberg, so a story about ballet shoes is probably to be expected. This one is a about a girl who wears some red ballet shoes that makes her dance till she dies.
I am not particularly fond of ballet. Actually I could not really care less. I like the music and I do enjoy opera, but dancing is something I prefer doing rather than watching and I am pretty sure nobody would enjoy watching me dance as that is a truly horrifying to behold. Had this movie actually been a ballet I doubt I would have enjoyed it. But, alas, this is not a ballet film, but a film about ballet and, more importantly the people involved with ballet.
In this movie we find Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the manager or impresario of The Ballet Lermontov. He is the despotic king of his ballet company and acts the part. Ruthless, arrogant, egomaniac and driven and always surrounded by style and luxury. Lermontov is obsessed by the idea of living for the art, to dedicate your entire being to achieve artistic perfection and his position grants him the freedom to pursue this obsession and the arrogance to demand and expect it from his underlings. Lermontov is a character that you have to hate and despise, but also find it difficult not to admire or envy. Total power, total dedication and total egocentrism. Anton Walbrook is at his best in this part and he is perfectly believable.
Such a character fits the ballet world of the Lermontov Ballet. Everybody involved are terribly dramatic creatures. All big words and gestures, tons of arrogance and ego, but also hard, hard work and ambition. Powell and Pressburger (yup, they are back, this is another one of their movies) could have used actors with stand-ins for the dance scenes, but instead they opted for the real thing. All these people are real, professional dancers, and not just anybody. The lead dancers Grischa Ljubov (Léonide Massine), Ivan Boleslawsky (Robert Helpmann) and Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina) were all giants in the ballet world at the time and it shows. I suppose the primadonna airs had a level of reality to them.
And then there is the woman at the center of the entire film; Moira Shearer as Vicky Page, the talented girl who develops into a star. Shearer was a renowned ballerina already and according to the story around the movie not even particularly interested in accepting the role. I am happy she did though because not only does her dancing looking authentic she also has a presence in the movie like a natural actress.
Vicky Page becomes the protégé of Lermontov who somehow projects himself onto her. She is in a very real sense his tool to accomplish the artistic success he is craving. It is clear he is a jealous master. There is no room for external distractions such a family and a private life outside the ballet. I was wondering throughout if there is a sexual element as well and I am still not sure. I think possession is more precise.
This is where the movie links to the fairy tale. In Lermontov’s world there is only room for dancing and because of that eventually the red shoes aka Lermontov will kill Page. To highlight this theme the ballet company is performing the red shoes story as a ballet itself so that this story is both a story within the story and the overall theme for the movie itself. The movie is famous for its 20 minutes sequence of ballet where Shearer is actually dancing this performance together with Massine and Helpmann. Even I, an ignorant and plebeian, can see that this is a beautiful and well-made piece and although 20 minutes seem long it actually works rather well. I dare any modern film to insert a sequence of 20 minutes of ballet.
In a parallel storyline Lermontov has taken another protégé as well; the young and talented composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). For large parts of the movie he is our eyes and ears at the opera company as he is the outsider who enters this foreign world. His assent to fame is by composing excellent scores for the ballet performances and indeed an original score was composed for the “Red Shoes” performance we witness. Craster however only becomes important in the end as he becomes the lover of Vicky Page and therefore a rival to Lermontov. In this final part Page is confronted by the choice of artistic excellence or the love of a man. Page who is devoted to both has a hard time deciding.
This last conflict is at the core of the film and in all the material I have found about it, it is interpreted as the price of ultimate art. A sort of romantic sacrifice for an artistic goal. I have a slightly different take on it. To my mind it is the choice most women eventually face between their professional life and family life and I think the films message is that it is terribly frustrating and unfair that such a choice needs to be made, that somehow it ought to be possible to embrace both. Yet how many women have not sacrificed one or the other as an ultimate “either/or”? The Second World War was a time of emancipation as thousands if not millions of women entered the workforce as replacement for the men needed in the war. For most of these women it was a challenge to juggle job and family responsibilities, but what if the job was not just a job, but a career? Something only men had been able to aspire to until then. Could you pursue that and also have a family?
Maybe my imagination is running away with me and this film is just what it is, a story of the sacrifice of ultimate art, but I think this analogy is very tempting and certainly it has not lost its relevance. Shearer herself faced it only few years later when she retired her active career to devote herself to husband and children.
I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected. You can see this for the ballet, or just enjoy the marvelous Technicolor of the newly restored version, but you can also simply enjoy it as a good and very well-made film with a solid story and some very interesting if not always likable characters. I liked it all.