Julian: “Why aren’t you in bed?”
Vicky: “I was ordered to, but I was much too excited to sleep. So here I am.”
Julian: “Are you? I haven’t seen you.”
Vicky: “Thank you.”
Julian: “By the way, you haven’t seen me either.”
For all of its balletomanic intensity, and despite the justly-praised plenitude of its palette, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is primarily a cinematic soubresaut into the abyss of allegory. From its beguilingly bleak Technicolor title cards (each one a mocking invitation to the dance macabre, with the eponymous crimson seal of aesthetic purity set upon the enchanted but leafless woodscapes they’ve both beautified and blighted) to its harrowing alt-Karenina conclusion, the film rarely misses an opportunity to shine its spotlight upon what (and who) is missing from its mise-en-scène.
We begin with an empty stairwell (with a cultivated horde of youthful barbarians at the gates) and then cut to an empty theatre balcony (soon filled by that same bevy of boorish beauty-lovers). It’s opening night! (For a ballet entitled Heart of Fire) Definitely a time to “be here now”, as the yogis like to say. And the Great Palmer, supposed composer of the piece, is smilingly conspicuous by his presence. So, too, is Boronskaja, the bohemian balletomane’s delight. But this is a production of the “Ballet Lermontov”. And where is Lermontov? The camera takes its time, but it does eventually get around to showing us – and here we get our first glimpse of the film’s taste for dramatic indirection.
Yes, that’s Anton Walbrook’s hand, reaching out of the shadows to close upon an irritating summons to appear before the great worldly god Mammon, incarnated in the chummy person of that “great patron of the arts”, Lady Neston. To everyone’s astonishment, the ultra-aloof impresario, whose only god is the ballet, deigns to attend the party. There, he just barely dodges an ambush/dance audition by the hostess’ niece, and then succumbs to an even more mortifying fate when he brags of his escape to a fellow cocktail drinker, sneering “now it seems we are to be spared that horror”. His interlocutor (Moira Shearer), of course, proves to BE that horror, and tells him as much. Lermontov is singularly unperturbed by this mammoth gaffe, opting to press on with the conversation, asking the young lady (her name is Vicky Page) why she wants to dance. Here again, she surprises him, responding with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” And there we have them: “Dance” (or “Art”) and “Life”, presented as parallel (although not yet competing) forces, each with their own irresistible imperatives.
Speaking of parallels, the film has also been following the tribulations of one Julian Kraster, the actual composer of Heart of Fire (ol’ Professor Palmer definitely doesn’t teach ethics), who has his own disconcerting dealings with Lermontov after firing off a denunciatory letter concerning the latter’s unauthorized use of his stolen intellectual property. He soon finds himself engaged by the Company (as an orchestra coach), showing up for work the same morning that Vicky presents herself to ballet master Ljubov (played by the celebrated Leonide Massine) as a potential trainee. Now we begin to meet all of the major players (both on- and back-stage), and begin to get a sense of the daily life of the Ballet Lermontov. Powell and Pressburger tease us with the possibility of some sort of antipathy between Ljubov and ballerina Boronskaja (when the latter arrives nearly an hour late and the former explodes), but their seemingly bitter bickering is soon revealed to be merely a form of ritualized play, and the group (most of whom, I believe, actually were Ballet Russes personnel) comes into focus as a singularly convivial and mutually supportive family (complete with grandfatherly set designer Ratov, played by the always comforting Albert Basserman). Everyone’s so very nice, including the big star that Vicky will have to replace if she’s ever to get on with the business of her inevitable ascent. Everyone, that is, except for “Dad” Lermontov, who, in Walbrook’s carefully judged performance, is only ever as encouraging as he needs to be, and never because he actually cares about his people. (After Ljubov warns him that you “cannot alter human nature”, Lermontov remarks: “No. I think you can do better than that. I think you can ignore it.)
Matters come to an early head, and the symbolic conflict between Art and Life really takes hold, when Boronskaja interrupts a practice session to announce, in a very heartfelt scene, that she is engaged to be married. The whole Company mobs her with their congratulations. It’s an eruption of emotion that is every bit as moving as the dances we have seen – although Lermontov clearly doesn’t see it that way. And we don’t see Lermontov at all. Neither does Boronskaja.
“He has,” she concludes, “no heart… that man.”
It’s an astonishing moment. Astonishing and surprising. It’s not exactly the most original bit of scripting. In any other film it would seem ridiculous and over-the-top. But here, thanks to actress/dancer Ludmilla Tcherina’s perfectly calibrated tone of tragic realization, and to Powell’s remarkable staging of the discovery (using a golden pillar and a billowing curtain to indicate the absent man in question), it conveys the film’s allegorical drift brilliantly: Art has left the building.
Soon, Lermontov spells this out for us (and for Vicky, who is standing nearby, literally and symbolically “waiting in the wings” when he issues his balletomanifesto) in his characteristically sneering manner: “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” Vicky takes the bait, readily leaping into the Red Shoes that Lermontov has been cobbling for her, in his mind, ever since his discovery that she actually has the skills to back up her aspirations and her sexy talk about dancing because she must. Quickly, the impresario asks Kraster to write a new score for Hans Christian Andersen’s grisly fable about a young girl who finally attains the pinnacle of her desire (to dance at a ball in the eponymous footwear) and is eventually consumed by it (the shoes, it seems, like “Dance” itself, have a mind of their own, and, like Lermontov, no heart). Walbrook seems positively possessed as he recounts the events of the tale, gripping a slipper-clad sculpture en pointe as he tells Kraster: “time rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on”.
In a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, Lermontov seems to forget what all of this insane terpsichore is building toward – and when Kraster jogs his memory, asking “what happens in the end?”, the impresario lets go of the foot and replies, offhandedly, “oh, in the end she dies.”
Indeed she (Vicky) does, although, in the “backstage” plot of this film, the protagonist dies while seemingly rushing toward what the allegorical structure asks us to accept as “Life” (leaping off the balcony where she first made contact with her off-stage lover Kraster – the place neither of them was supposed to be, in the dialogue quoted at the top of this post – and the train that enshrouds them in the earlier scene, insulating them, it would seem, from the demands of “Art”, so that “Life” can have its brief fling, is destined to become the instrument of her destruction), rather than expiring under the unyielding lash of pure aestheticism.
In fact, the only real similarity between the tragedies involving the ballerina Vicky and the character she plays on stage is that, in both cases, red shoes are found at the scene of the crime. Red Shoes that cannot be filled for long. There’s a great deal of symbolic slippage going on here. Do the Red Shoes mean the same thing in P & P’s film that they mean in Andersen’s story? It seems not. They are connected, of course, but the shoes in the fable act unilaterally upon the girl, fanning the flames of her aesthetic desires and then literally subsisting upon them until that energy expends itself. Vicky’s shoes seem motivated by a very different agenda. They certainly don’t get much mileage out of her (Lermontov insists that she’s got a long way to go before she gets a toehold upon the peak he envisions for her). Can we then say that “Art” (and Lermontov) is only one of the shoes that weigh her down? Meanwhile, that other foot, so firmly planted in the banal world of “Life” with Julian, is just as murderously clad in crimson. It is, in fact, the Art/Life dichotomy itself that carries Vicky, and those shoes, in uncharacteristic lockstep toward the precipice.
There’s a lot to say about the patriarchal gender dynamics of the piece – about the culturally-prescribed factors that pushed Powell and Pressburger to dramatize the eternal artist’s dilemma through the subjective experience of a woman- but last night’s viewing caused me to consider a more purely theoretical reading of the film this time around – i.e. it isn’t the hubristic pursuit of a career (or the resentful decision to “settle” for being a housewife) that kills Vicky, it’s the overweening logic of the film’s (and, certainly, patriarchy’s) organizing allegorical structure itself. And if that is the case, then perhaps the film isn’t suggesting, as many people have inferred, that its protagonist is predestined to die for her “Art”, but rather that she is murdered by the power that she (and, of course, society) invests in the only-superficially-dissimilar devils that she finds on either one of her shoulders (and imprisoning both of her talented feet), whispering and weaving (together) a web of mutually reinforcing lies about the incompatibility between experience and expression that works to limit the horizons of human agency.
Ultimately, what is missing from this film is anyone real for Vicky to interact with. Far from being the “creation” of Lermontov, Moira Shearer (who really is magnificent in the part – never straining to convince us of her aesthetic ambitions, because we can perceive them in her every movement) is the only truly living being in the piece (at least, after Ludmilla Tcherina leaves the stage), surrounded and continuously mocked by the golden pillars and billowing curtains of an unyielding literary formula.