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Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is world-class ballet director and he fits the bill: he is as demanding, secretive and aloof as one could imagine. Only dance has the ability to stir something in him that could pass for the burning passion of a living man - and then again, this passion would be of a mystic nature rather than a carnal one since he lives very much like a monk in his faith. He encounters two talented young people: the aspiring composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose plagiarized work earned him some fame, and the incandescent ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). Capitalizing on their ambitions - simmering just below the deceptively innocent surface of their inexperience -, Lermontov is offering them both the opportunity of a lifetime. In his upcoming ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen's The red shoes (a tale about a vain girl lusting after a pair of enchanted shoes that will ultimately make her dance to death), Craster will compose the score and Page will be given the leading role.
From its opening night the ballet is, quite predictably, a success, and makes Vicky an overnight sensation. Lermontov makes a deal with her: provided she relies on him and commits to her dancing, he will help her become the greatest dancer the world has ever seen. Vicky, who is only too flattered to have attracted the attention of such a great man, accepts promptly... and in doing so, overlooks Lermontov's well-know aversion for any form of sentimental involvement in his proteges' lives. Indeed, according to Lermontov's point of view, the true artist should not have room in their soul for both art and earthly affections. Soon enough, Vicky falls in love and to make things even worse, she doesn't fall for Lermontov - she falls for Craster.
Perhaps my absolute indifference to ballet is responsible (at least partly) for the fact that I don't like The red shoes that much compared to other movies of Powell & Pressburger. In the whole primary school I was the only little girl who did not take ballet classes (some black sheep I was, even back then!). That being said, The tales of Hoffmann appealed even less to me since it is all about the ballet numbers. Maybe my lack of fondness has more to do with the fact that I can't relate to the story or to the characters as much as in other films such as The life and death of Colonel Blimp, I know where I'm going! or Black narcissus. Also, I'm not seduced by the somewhat grandiloquent baroque aesthetics of the film. Unlike Martin Scorsese or Bertrand Tavernier (who both fought to have Michael Powell acknowledged by movie scholars like the great director that he is, in spite of the infamously dismissive judgment made by none other than François Truffaut: see Michael Powell's memoirs, A life in movies and Million dollar movie), I'm most definitely not in awe of this film. However, I must admit that repeated viewings throughout the years have helped me distinguish more nuances and exquisite details in the overwhelming whirlpool of sounds and bright colors that is The red shoes. Little by little, I have come to appreciate it more than I initially did, and I have found a couple of elements I really love.
For starters, I find a lot of pleasure in watching the story unravel so smoothly, with the tale of The red shoes and Vicky's destiny so intimately interwoven that they outline the same pattern: that of a girl who would stop at nothing to dance, whatever the cost. Through subtle changes in camera angles and lighting, Powell suggests that the ballerina herself believes that she's under some spell. Couldn't Lermontov be the real-life match of the evil shoemaker of the ballet, since he is the one who ties the red ribbons around Vicky's ankles and thereby triggers the events that will eventually cause the young woman's demise? In many instances, the hold Lermontov has over Vicky is conveyed though the use of shots/countershots where her child-like face and delicate china doll complexion enhance her apparent vulnerability to the intense gaze, comforting hands and magnetic physical presence of her mentor.
One could muse on the shots that were chosen to introduce Lermontov to us: in a crowded theater just before the ballet starts, a pair of hands emerges from behind the velvet curtains of a private box, eliciting a wave of whispers from the aisles. One could, and wonder whether this movie has been an inspiration to Brian De Palma for shooting one of the opening scenes of Phantom of the Paradise, when Swan is first shown to us in a very similar way. In any case, it is obvious that the motif of the artist deprived of his work run through both films, and that both characters are crossovers between Faust, Dorian Gray and Pygmalion. In both instances, the character's personal grooming style is half-dandy, half-vampire. Walbrook's character is shown sporting gorgeous dressing gowns made of silk or velvet and on the rare occasions he is seen outdoors, his supernatural appearance is enhanced by the contrast between his extremely pale skin and the sunglasses he is wearing. Incidentally, Lermontov is also the name of a Russian poet whose most celebrated work, The demon, is about... well, a demon, who falls in love with a girl and takes her away from her fiance.
Another interpretation could be made of this story - I can't recall whether Powell mentioned this in his autobiography and I doubt that he did, most likely it's just me stretching things too far... But what if Lermontov was really the reflection of the tyrannical director Powell once was, and Vicky the incarnation of those (actresses, technicians) he self-admittedly abused, professionally or emotionally? Maybe I'm off tracks here but Powell acknowledged that he used to be too uncompromising, especially when he was trying to balance his budding career and his love affair with actress Deborah Kerr. And perhaps there is a little of Powell in Craster too, since the young composer follows his own way, convinced as he is that Vicky will eventually give up dancing to be with him?
My second epiphany comes from Anton Walbrook: gee, what an actor! Both his class and his versatility are obvious in this film, even more than in The life and death of Colonel Blimp (even though Walbrook's monologue in the latter is absolutely unforgettable). In The red shoes he is everywhere and everything at the same time: the cold and reclusive artist, the inflexible boss, the possessive protector in the throes of a lover's jealousy, the manipulative mastermind, then the broken man. His face, where nearly imperceptible emotions are displayed, is The red shoes' other sheet music.