The Red Shoes | Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

“Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

One of the most beautiful films ever made, Michael Powell and Emeic Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) is a rare celebration of artistic creation that also acknowledges the cost to its creators. The story involves a young ballerina, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), who joins a ballet company directed by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, a regular in Powell/Pressburger films). Ambitious young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring, another Powell/Pressburger regular) joins the company’s musical staff, and before long he’s rewriting the music for a ballet, The Red Shoes, in which Vicky will dance the lead role. The ballet is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name; this is the kind of film in which life and art refuse to stay in their separate spheres, however, so you can guess that this won’t be the Disney version.

There are so many reasons to love The Red Shoes, but for me it always comes down to Lermontov. To be fair, before indulging my obsession, let me list a few of the many other reasons this film is great:

  • It takes art very seriously—as a matter of life and death, in fact—and contrasts the attitude of the committed artists with that of the frivolous rich who treat art as an affectation or status symbol.
  • It captures the feeling of being young and talented and a bit obnoxious about it all. This is perfectly captured in the opening scene, which features a pack of music and dance students stampeding up the stair of a theater to “the gods” (the cheap seats, furthest removed from the stage), then setting up camp as if they owned the place. And why not? The students of today are the stars of tomorrow, and no one ever got ahead in a competitive profession by hiding their light under a bushel basket.
  • Everything in this film takes place in a world of heightened reality, as befits a story about the ballet. The cinematography by Jack Cardiff and brilliant use of color (in three-strip Technicolor) are two of the many reasons this effect is achieved so brilliantly.
  • There’s lots of ballet within the film, both in rehearsal and performance, and the cast features a number of noted dancers and choreographers, including Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina, and Robert Helpmann, as well as the star of the picture, Moira Shearer. The Red Shoes ballet written for this film was choreographed by Robert Helpmann, with music written by Brian Easdale and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

But back to the real reason I watch this film over and over: the character of Lermontov, based in part on Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev. Lermontov is the guy who’s got it all figured out, who has no doubts about anything, and who will never suffer from L’espirit de l’escalier because he always produces exactly the right quip at exactly the right moment. He lives only for the ballet and will give the time of day only for people who are useful to him. If you don’t take ballet as seriously as he does, prepare to be the object of his withering scorn. Lermontov is absolutely ruthless and unabashedly self-centered, in other words, and while he might be a bit scary to encounter in person, he’s positively delightful to observe from the comfort of your theater seat or living room.

When Craster demonstrates to Lermontov that the music for a recently performed ballet was actually stolen from his own work, Lermontov doesn’t bat an eye. Instead, he offers Julian a job as an orchestra coach (a sort of rehearsal conductor), and then offers his spin on the situation with these immortal words: “It’s worth remembering that it is more disheartening to have to steal than to be stolen from.” Oh, snap! Lermontov delivers those lines while wearing an embroidered caftan, yet you don’t have the least temptation to giggle; instead, his vaguely exotic dress somehow adds to his aura of invincibility.

When the company’s star ballerina announces she is to be married, Lermontov dismisses her from the company. His explanation: “You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer.” When another dancer reminds him “You can’t alter human nature,” Lermontov has a ready answer: “I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.”

Just before the opening of the ballet, Lermontov is complimented by the company’s conductor, Livy Montagne: “You’re a magician, Boris. To have produced all this in three weeks, and from nothing.” Lermontov reminds him “not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.” That’s what we call having the last word.

Lermontov does have a weak point, however. When he has committed to developing a soloist, he demands absolute dedication. When he doesn’t get it, as when he learns that Vicky and Julian have fallen in love, he reacts like a jealous boyfriend: He’s deeply hurt, but deflects attention from himself by lashing out at the “faithless” dancer for presuming to have a life. Speaking of Vicky’s performance, he declares it was “impossible” (his favorite put-down) and that she will never become a great dancer “if she allows herself to be sidetracked by idiotic flirtations.”

You probably have noticed all of Lermontov’s exclusivity demands fall on females (one man does take a hit, but only because he’s involved in “distracting” a woman from her work). That’s totally sexist, but an accurate reflection of the expectations placed on women in 1948, and to a surprising extent today. It’s ridiculous, of course, but so much more refreshing to hear such a philosophy stated directly, rather than insidiously assumed. It’s also worth noting that Lermontov is not the only character in the film laying this particular guilt trip on Vicky.

That’s The Red Shoes, folks. The ballet is magical, the glimpses backstage fascinating, the characters memorable, and the special effects marvelous. It was nominated for five Oscars, winning two (Original Score and Art Direction), and it’s one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films, as well. I can’t think of a better endorsement for a ballet film than for it to be a favorite with a guy most noted for directing films about boxers and gangsters. | Sarah Boslaugh

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