Melodrama in cinema from the austere, late forties era can often be hokum: over-egged; hand-wringing tales of wronged, flouncy ladies and boorish patrician gentlemen.
The Red Shoes has indeed much flouncy camp. And it is a 1948 film, focusing on a young ballet dancer, Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) who is forced to choose between a career as a prima ballerina, and love. So it ought to tick all the boxes of overwrought, histrionic clichés… What makes it so different?
When it was first screened for studio executives, they hated it, and stormed off without comment. It was feared that it would be a flop, coming as it did after the success of erotic psychodrama Black Narcissus (more of which, later).
But over seventy years later, it’s still regarded as a classic of the genre. This is attributed to several factors. Jack Cardiff and his innovative camera techniques, as with the previous film, meant a nod to German Expressionism, all tilted angles and looming, portentous shadows.
The chiarascuro is exquisite (contrasts of light and shade, familiar to any art student) and the narrative is unusual, to say the least: a woman forced to decide between a marriage or career in a post-war Britain, with a twist aping the ballet which makes her name: the puppet master of The Red Shoes causes her character’s demise; the puppet master in reality ruins her career and life.
Powell and Pressburger used real dancers, which was considered almost unheard of at the time. Shearer, still just in her early twenties, was making a name for herself at Sadler’s Wells, Leonide Massine, who plays both Grischka and the Puppet master, was a ballet veteran, and the elfin dancer Robert Helpmann not only co-starred as Ivan, but also created the stunning choreography for the seventeen minutes dance sequence. The camera travels slowly through the rehearsals, voyeur to try-outs, camaraderie and infighting alike.
Finally, it interrogates power structures and hierarchy within the dance community. Maurice Lermontov (Anton Wallbrook, never knowingly un-dastardly) is the head of Lermontov Ballet, and as unscrupulous a man as ever there was in cinema. Emotionally cold, he believes in art, not feelings. As always with Powell and Pressburger, it’s the paradox of giving all to work, to be left with nothing of the self. It’s a study in passion bubbling under the surface of good old British reserve. All of these elements were iconoclastic, and make the film a singular piece of genius.
Lermontov is manipulative and heartless, a tyrant who believes relationships are wrongheaded, childish nonsense and dance is the be all and end all. To that end, he is shedding leading ladies like they’re ten a penny (dancer Ludmilla Tcherina as Irina was the previous star to leave) and he cannot, and will not, lose his latest muse.
This is, however, a classic love triangle. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) the company’s passionate young composer, is falling for Vicky, and it is reciprocated. When Lermontov gets wind of the burgeoning relationship, he sacks Craster in a fit of pique, and disaster ensues.
It’s not hard to draw parallels between Lermontov, the brutal Svengali, and the likes of Harvey Weinstein in recent years: micromanaging, domineering and obnoxious figures within the arts. Vicky Page is doomed either way- leave the Lermontov company and she loses her starring role- leave Craster, and she is denying her true feelings.
There is the overriding sense that she’s little more than a cipher, a woman without agency- and neither she nor Craster have a way to sue the villainous Lermontov for unfair dismissal- this is the true tragedy of The Red Shoes.
Martin Scorsese has always been one of the film’s most vocal champions. His father took him to see it at the cinema as a little boy, and he was immediately drawn to the radical visuals, dark glamour and storytelling. It left an indelible mark on him. Surely there can be no finer endorsement.