The Red Shoes (1948)

Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

I have been vexed occasionally in the past year because I wanted to write something about a Powell and Pressburger film but couldn’t think of a good way to do it; as a general rule I don’t like to talk about what I’ve already read about in a film, but unfortunately, everyone else has already talked about those things: a rare generosity towards an older generation in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the importance of setting in Black Narcissus, the surprisingly literal adaptation of “Among School Children” that is The Red Shoes. And so on down the depth chart of major ideas.

I suppose that if I were to look for the one shot in The Red Shoes that most perfectly sums up the movie, I could have looked in any number of directions. Perhaps one from the ballet itself, smack in the middle of the picture; or a shot of Craster (Goring) in the early going, as he realizes that Heart of Fire has been plagiarized from him; or Lermontov (Walbrook) staring deeply into the mirror he has just broken; or the movie’s money shot, Vicky’s (Shearer) horrified made-up face with hands at her temples, her orange hair much closer to real red in the light. Yet this one above, in a luxurious railway car, appeals to me most. It’s all there.

If this were a competition for “Best Shot of The Red Shoes,” then I have to choose this.

One looks to Vicky first, I suppose, largely because she is the focal point of the movie, a prism that creates the light spectrum and thus is not our focus. Like Deborah Kerr’s three characters in Colonel Blimp, she is not much of a person; if someone were to reboot The Red Shoes, Vicky would not be able to play off her immense passion for dancing with the well-bred matter-of-factness that characterizes her throughout. Why does she dance? Why do you live? she asks Lermontov. An American audience would not buy it these days, although in the year 1948, when Joe DiMaggio was still America’s great sporting icon, it’s easier to imagine us accepting grace as a synonym for passion.  In the image above, the grace on display and in repose. It’s remarkable that red hair and green dresses go together as neatly as they do; they are reflected sideways in her blue eyes and her reddish lipstick and blush. Shearer is lovely; in this visible way she’s reminiscent of Judy Jones in “Winter Dreams,” who is described thus:

There was no divergence of method, no jockeying for position or premeditation of effects–there was a very little mental side to any of her affairs. She simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physical loveliness.

She is similar in that “mental side” as well, although Judy, of course, is the personification of this song, where Vicky is anything but. Other men speak love to her. Craster reminisces forward during a carriage ride on the Riviera, imagining wistfulness about the moment that the two of them held each other sleepily. There’s nothing sleepy about Lermontov’s pursuit, even if he wishes it was rather quieter. He learns of her affair with Craster at a rowdy birthday party, and from then on he haunts her. That picture takes place on the train as he tries to convince her to return to the Ballet Lermontov, which is, of course, a return to him; in the way that an author feels that the book he has written is his own, Lermontov imagines himself the author of Vicky’s success rather than a mere facilitator. Viewing her entirely through the lens of that success, he ramps up his own role in her brilliant fame. Funnily, perhaps predictably, he seems little more than a cog while real experts – the other dancers who help her improve, for example, or Craster, who writes the music she became a star dancing to – propel her forward. From the point of view which means to give Lermontov as little credit as possible, it may well be argued that his entire role in her stardom is merely not firing her. It’s no surprise that here he is literally in Vicky’s shadow. (One acknowledges the sort of trite lighting which places half of him in shadow and half of him in light, but then wants to push it away. Lermontov is many things, but he is not a DC superhero.)

Walbrook’s Lermontov, while no ballerino himself, governs his body impeccably. He is the epitome of disinterest – all he cares about is control, and the way he keeps it is through pretending not to care. He is aloof, as all men of a certain affected temperament are, and part of that affectation is body language. He sits in hard-backed chairs, and he makes the most of them. His posture is typically superb, especially while walking, but he does allow himself a small respite; he is capable of making the most of those backs. In other words, he never seems to lean in; leaning in, as anyone who has ever read one of those foul pop-up articles about whether or not one knows if s/he’s into you, is a classic sign of interest. Not Lermontov. He does it only rarely. Once, he is in the audience at a matinee performance of Swan Lake in which Vicky dances the lead. Near the very end of the film, he crouches curled around her. And in this instance, he leans toward her while she almost looks in his direction.

There are moments in this scene which are almost identical shots, but I didn’t choose them because Lermontov looks far more composed in each of them. In this one, he’s sallow. His forehead is a little too wrinkled to be just concerned or impassioned. If you follow his eyes, they’re resting more on her neck than anywhere else; Lermontov is of course vampiric, especially when one considers the end of the film (no, you nincompoop, he doesn’t bite her), but I prefer a simpler interpretation. He’s sick. Not with love, for it’s hard to imagine Lermontov really believing in love as anything short of a competition, but with incomprehension or disbelief.  Contradiction is not in Lermontov’s wheelhouse, much less begging – indeed, even when his confidante and close friend, Grisha (Leonide Massine) dramatically quits the ballet, he merely acquiesces and walks on. But here, Lermontov does his best to convince Vicky to return, alternately cajoling and promising and wheedling. It must be abhorrent to his entire instinct, a shock to the body, but then again, as I’ve hinted above, he has already taken the symbolic step of smashing his mirror where his face appeared. Change was imminent – perhaps destined, per the shattering of his identity – but nothing happens immediately. After all, it took some time before those red shoes caught up to Vicky. Even sickness itself takes time; Lermontov looks like he may vomit, but he already had to stomach the poison some time back.

3 thoughts on “The Red Shoes (1948)

  1. […] Once again, I find myself a little lost for words trying to talk about a Powell and Pressburger movie, so once again I’ll go to a shot and try to work backwards. There are fewer famous images in Black Narcissus than in The Red Shoes, I think; nothing, not even Kathleen Byron’s “I’ve stayed up all night in the Himalayas and now I’m crazy” eyes, can quite match up to Moira Shearer’s “I’ve been dancing the ballet for so long that I’m placing the men I know into the ballet and now I’m crazy” eyes. Sister Ruth applying her lipstick, Sister Clodagh looking at something imperiously, Dean being shirtless and handsome at half a dozen moments in the film, Kanchi peeking under a partition at the Young General: each of them is in its own way a distinct image, but all of them fall short. They are images of people, and Black Narcissus is most successful when the people are shapes in white, or in some rich jewel tone, but not when they are in full focus. […]

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