Romantic drama based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. A ballet dancer, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) meets Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a composer, who becomes a mentor. He: “Why do you want to dance?” She: “Why do you want to live?” The pivot of this intense but odd triangle proves to be Julian Craster (Marius Goring), her love interest.
Julian manages to secure a position in Lermontov’s orchestra. At the opera house, he meets another dancer, Irina Berenskaya (Ludmilla Tcherina). Julian runs into Victoria on the same set; both Julian and Victoria are victims of the snooty, cutesy run-around from the other musicians, dancers, and actors. Soon, however, Julian is conducting the rehearsal. Vicky (Victoria), meanwhile, gets her dancing part in the opera.
Naturally, her performance is not only excellent, she’s chosen to join Lermantov’s tour of European venues. Boris explains to Julian that he’s on board for the upcoming production of the fabled The Red Shoes. Regarding a dancer who’s getting married, Boris shows his true colors “A dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer, never!.” An artist can only be virginal, or single? Hmm. That doesn’t stop Boris from promoting Vicky, however.
Strangely, as she’s chauffeured in Boris’ limousine, Vicky wears a tiara, looking very much like a princess. Soon she’s got the lead in Red Shoes. On a beautiful terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, Julian and Vicky wish each other luck on the production. At this point, they barely know each other; this is a more realistic, steady-as-she-goes pace than most screen romances. At least now they’re practicing together “my music will pull you through it” he says. Next item: the show’s premier, in Monaco.
Boris, perhaps caught up in the excitement, says to Vicky, endearingly, “I want you to dance with the same ecstasy (as once before).” Ok, then, bring it on! The performance itself is beautiful, magical. As many critics have said, the opera sets are highly expressionistic; even surreal, with a lot of negative (black) backgrounds and dizzying spatial perspectives. This is some of the most enticing imagery and choreography in film. There’s a vast range of emotional settings and psychological feelings portrayed: pastoral, elegant, quaint, horrific, magnificent, forbidding, whimsical, romantic, passionate.
I would watch the movie for The Red Shoes performance itself. All that is immediately followed by an austere scene backstage–muted colors and deep vistas contrast excellently with the previous fantastic elements. At a get together afterwards, Boris congratulates Julian. Then he asks Vicky again what she wants from life “To live?” (no, not exactly) “To dance” is again her reply. “You shall dance: the world shall follow.” And that’s what happens.
In Venice, it’s party time. The company is lit up, in more ways than one. Not to mention the “romance” (finally) of Vicky and Julian is literally announced. Along the shore, they journey in a horse-drawn taxi (must be a cool name for these things), under a summery night sky. It’s a wonderfully made romantic interlude, with some opera scenes plugged in. Actually, the stage scenes supercede the lovey stuff. So Julian has to actually explain to Boris that he is in love with Vicky; Boris is deprecating and dismissive. Not only that–he more or less fires both of them.
Next thing, the unhappy couple is at a cafe, fairly depressed. She confirms her disgust with Boris by telling him that if Julian goes, she does too. Wisely, she and Julian go off and get married. Boris, of course, is definitely twisted-up. He evens breaks a mirror in his baroque digs. So, he’ll take Vicky back, provided she doesn’t do The Red Shoes. No dice; the new bride doesn’t relent. In Paris, Stockholm, Vienna, everywhere, it’s Irina in Vicky’s place. Boris isn’t quite reconciled to that, though.
At their place one night, Julian can’t sleep. Vicky gets up too, looking in her trunk (for the red slippers?). With Julian on the piano, she goes to embrace him. And, Meanwhile, didn’t we know, Boris is busily writing her a letter. Finding out that she’s back in England, he finds her aboard a train. They reminisce. Oh, no, what a backslider, she hasn’t been dancing.So, then, would her husband give up his opera premiere for her? (to reunite with Boris’s lot?) “Put on The Red Shoes again, and dance for us.” By, God, his entreaties work this time! Indirectly, that is. It’s Julian who junks his debut to join her. She’s very surprised: “I love you Julian!”
Bizarrely, on the face of it, I think Boris has a bit of a point: she can indeed choose art over conventionality. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t exactly idealism v. drudgery–that’s a different premise. It’s really life and love over art for art’s sake. Anyway, Julian leaves her at the opera house; she‘s ‘suited-up’, with the red shoes on. And she runs madly after Julian. Thank god! But, no, what’s this–she runs over a cliff instead. It’s left to Boris to explain the suicide to the opera house crowd.
The last few scenes are brilliant. We go back and forth from the cobbled-together Red Shoes performance, to the railway tracks, dying Vicky, and the actual red shoes. What I glean from that is that Vicky, even in death, embodies life with art; whereas the stage, although enchanting, is art without life.
A clue that we’re in for something special is the mere fact that there’s over a hundred critic reviews for this title on IMDb. Although I usually don’t favor long (2:15 here) movies, I couldn’t get enough of The Red Shoes. The operatic performance, coming as it does in the middle of the movie, gives us a movie-within-a-movie, as well as a break in the drama.
The roles are especially well-drawn. Shearer is engaging, radiant, and certainly plausible as a talented, but vulnerable performer. Goring isn’t quite as interesting, but he has great chemistry with Shearer. The supporting cast adds greatly to the verisimilitude, both on and off stage.
One feels a great deal of back-stage authenticity, which makes the fantasy elements of the Red Shoe sequence all the more effective. We not only see the result of all the behind-the-scenes stuff, we also get the immense relief espressed in the festive camaraderie after the well-received performances.
The engaging Mediterranean locations give a classy sheen to the atmosphere. This is not to say that we’re here to look agog at Venice and Monte Carlo–aside from Boris and a few minions, no one here is wealthy or has it made–but rather, for some of us lucky ones, there’s a limitless horizon. In fact, were it not for the menace that Boris represents, the movie is a magnificentically-realized dream.
A quibble would be with Vicky’s no-way-out response to the dilemma of choosing her husband or her mentor. Maybe it would be better if she had faced that crisis earlier on (but had been rescued somehow), so that the movie doesn’t end on such an ambiguous but fatalistic note. I did discover, though, that the Andersen fairy tale posits that the the red-shoe-wearer will die if she stops dancing; so this denouement reconciles the fairy tale and the movie plot.
Another odd circumstance is that Boris is given so much influence over both Julian and Vicky’s lives that it borders on incredulity. Of course, opera is a rarefied thing, and there can’t be that many prestigious companies. But if the couple really loves each other, they’d probably work for the Nowheresville Opera Company.
The flaws that show up in The Red Shoes don’t detract much from the overall viewing experience. How good can a movie be anyway? This is worth mining for its cinematic jewels anytime. 9/10.