Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger explored the theme of love in so many ways in their work. Their A Matter of Life and Death is a personal favorite of mine and one that puts to trial whether love can cross cultural boundaries, especially during a war. With The Red Shoes, the directors explored an idea more personal : the balance of love. One can love what they do and one can love a person. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) leads a ballet and, in his experience, he believes one cannot do both simultaneously. When his prima ballerina gets married, she is let go from the company even though she is a revered dancer. For him, ballet is “religion” and he seeks out a dancer as serious about their craft as himself. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) appears to be. When asked why she likes to dance, Victoria snaps back at Boris saying, “Why do you want to live?” Soon, however, she will face a conflict. After great career success, she and young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) strike up a romance, forcing her to choose either Julian or dance.
In a way, The Red Shoes feels counter to A Matter of Life and Death. In the latter, love is an enduring force. It cuts through boundaries, brings people together, and transcends time and space. Love is an all-powerful feeling, truly moving heaven-and-Earth to ensure it is felt. Yet in The Red Shoes, it is destructive. Boris and Julian see to it that love will consume Victoria, who loves dancing and Julian. The two men will force her to decide between them with tragic results. The Red Shoes is, among many genres, a romance but one that questions whether one can truly live and experience love or if one must compromise. It is a film of extremes as Boris challenges Victoria, claiming she will be a housewife if she leaves the ballet. Earlier, as the original prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tchérina) leaves the company, she is told she can eat guilt-free now with no weight restrictions. It is a world of either-or with no middle ground and, in truth, one can see what Boris does at times. Victoria becomes distracted, sneaking smiles at Julian during a performance while he loses himself as conductor, breaking concentration to return the glance. They are both still brilliant, but they are not channelling their entire being into art. To Boris, in order to be great, one must commit themselves entirely or else their divided focus will hold them back. The Red Shoes offers no easy answers. Love threatens to destroy them all, making it so that one must choose which love is greater – for work or for romance – and The Red Shoes offers no easy answers.
For Victoria, her life is the manifestation of her key role in “The Red Shoes” ballet, compelled to dance but led through a horror minefield that will eventually lead to her ruin. It is her love, reason for being, and lone desire… until she meets Julian. By then, it is too late. Give up dance and she will always think about it, or she can give up Julian and always think about him. It is a challenge everyone faces everyday, perhaps not to such colorful or life-and-death extremes, but nonetheless rooted in reality. Men like Boris have made their choice, opting to dedicate themselves entirely to their passion: creation. Powell himself viewed the film as saying, “Art is worth dying for,” and one can see this course through Boris’ character. He may be “cruel” as Victoria says, but for artists like himself and Victoria, their art is what gives meaning to their lives, which is what makes this such a complex and affecting romance. In part, The Red Shoes is a film about love but not necessarily a singular or romantic love. It is about love of feeling, art, and passion. When that feeling threatens to end, then it is best to destroy yourself, lest having to watch that passion decay through neglect. If Boris and Julian are going to force Victoria to choose between them, Victoria sees self-destruction as her only option.
For this, The Red Shoes may be an odd choice for Valentine’s Day, yet it is a film defined by love. It demands to be felt and for Victoria, she cannot turn off either her love for Julian or for dance. It is her every being, the life blood with which she faces the world. If either were to turn away from her, then existence would be so impossible and unbearable as to not be even worth attempting. Her answer of “Why do you want to live” when asked why she likes to dance is merely given an extra layer of meaning, able to now encompass Julian as well. Powell keeps the film right in line with the ballet narratively, epitomized in The Red Shoes’ portrayal of love. It is beautiful, but it can be consuming. If one falls in love, then there is little available to break their fall. Though love may be a reason to live, it is a bargain best considered before fully embracing. Commitment and focus is required, but so too is support. Julian’s lack thereof for Victoria’s career and Boris for Victoria’s life is what undoes everything, a failing on their part and the plight of love. She cannot turn off her feelings and she has done everything right: she is committed, determined, absolute, and faithful. In dance, she dedicates long hours to her craft. In romance, she even briefly gives up dance to follow Julian. When she wants something in return, that love falters and just as love turns to pain in unceasingly urging the young girl to dance, Victoria’s passions turn sour. Pure and true as they once were, they have been corrupted by selfishness and greed.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger directed many great films together. The Red Shoes is right at the pinnacle. Directors such as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma have proclaimed the film as one of the best ever made and there are a great many reasons as to why. A beautiful adaptation and re-imagination of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Red Shoes stands not just as a beautiful romance and tragic look at the destructive force of love, but also as a multi-faceted work of great depth. Studying the life of an artist and the struggle to blend work with a genuine home life, as well as crafting a 17-minute ballet sequence that mirrors the film’s themes and amplifies them with incredible production design and costumes, The Red Shoes is a powerhouse.