What is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’sThe Red Shoes really about? A fairytale within a fairytale, the commitment of artistry, a story about the jealousies and passions that arise when you see a talent like no other… It’s hard to tie down the different threads in the movie, but the central theme from the opening scene to the final curtain is ambition. The ambition to rise to the top, to be a name everyone recognizes, and to receive all of the fame and the success that comes from being the star of a show. It’s no wonder so many filmmakers (Scorsese, Spielberg, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola) love this film — it’s made for and about young artists with dreams. And even if you don’t identify as an artist you can’t help but exit a screening of this film craving that same ambition, love, and devotion towards a field or an art form as the characters you saw onscreen. You could say the characters’ desires are infectious; they bleed through the screen, and even though my current rewatching of this was at least my fifth, I feel just as affected as if it were my first.
The film starts with our two lead characters in the audience watching a ballet, both on the outside looking in. Julian Craster has come out with his friends and other schoolmates to support his professor who has scored the music for the ballet, but it only takes him a few moments to realize much of the score he is hearing has been lifted from his own work. He leaves the performance deeply angered as Victoria Page, often referred to as Vicky, watches on, enraptured in her box seat. Her aunt has successfully convinced the owner of the company, Boris Lermontov, to attend a party where she’s arranged for Vicky to perform a dance exhibition. The exhibition is quickly cancelled, however, when Lermontov objects to watching her performance. Both artists, Julian and Vicky, have their hopes dashed in one night, but their drive to push on and their talent shines through to Lermontov, who separately invites them to join his company.
While Lermontov is often to the side of the stage or screen, always watching and observing both artists and his company at work, he is at the center of everything. Judge, jury, and executioner – nothing happens at the Ballet Lermontov without his knowledge and he has several loyal artisans who fall in line with his final word. Julian and Vicky don’t get the plummy jobs they had hoped for when they arrive at the company; they are regulated to background members but through their efforts they work their way up to being the main composer/conductor and principal dancer respectively. While we do have a few solitary scenes with Lermontov, we don’t often get to know his interior monologue or motivations. It’s unclear if he put them both on the bottom rung to watch them improve and train harder or if he saw their talent from the onset but still wanted to watch them struggle to make the climb to the top. Though Julian and Vicky join the company at the same time in different capacities, their big break coincides when Lermontov chooses them for his next production of the ballet The Red Shoes, based off a Hans Christian Anderson story. The Red Shoes is the culmination of an intense, month-long preparation period and though he pushes them almost to their limit, they achieve success together as the ballet is lauded widely.
Lermontov seems to take delight in his job and he comes alive during the pre-performance on opening night, putting everything together and moving his dancers into place. He approaches life the same way he approaches his job, decisively with everything falling into black and white. When his former principal dancer announces her upcoming nuptials, he fires her from the company and barely acknowledges her after she departs. But when he discovers that Julian and Vicky have begun a romance, he is enraged. Though he unintentionally brought them together, he takes his anger out on them and forces Julian to leave the company and is dismayed when Vicky follows. For a man used to getting his way, he is unable to handle this loss.
His feelings regarding Victoria are peculiar. At one moment he is a jilted lover trying to lock her into her current contract with him and then the next day his feelings have swung in the opposite direction and he endeavors not to hurt her. Meanwhile, he can’t seem to stand Julian and tries to appear nonchalant when hearing about his successes after exiting the company. There aren’t any overt romantic feelings he shows towards Vicky throughout her time in the company. She is a great find for him, someone he put his confidence into who delivered, but it seems like he regards her as just that alone – his principal dancer, his bet that paid off. Unlike the former principal, though, it hurts him more to lose her because she leaves of her own volition; she isn’t cast aside or cut and she makes the ballet The Red Shoes exceptional. He doesn’t have it performed once she leaves the company, the role is solely hers. Like a crown jewel, her departure makes his company seem a little empty. Maybe his jealousy derives from the fact that he doesn’t own her and that for all of his initial neglect he knows she is truly one of a kind, someone he drove away and let slip through his fingers.
The red ballet shoes at the center of the production are such a huge piece of the film. They personify Vicky, her ambitions and ultimately her demise. The shoes are bright, almost incarnadine, a color that symbolizes passion but in this context with a twist. The original Red Shoes fairytale is about sin, curses, and consequences. In the ballet, the shoes represent the sin of vanity similar to the tale and in the film ambition is the sin. There’s a battle between pure devotion to dance and to Vicky’s personal life. In her first interaction with Lermontov she boldly proclaims that dancing is her life and when she dances we see that too – she’s full-out, even in rehearsal, committing her whole body to her craft. In the end this is what causes her final confrontation between Lermontov and Julian, as both beg her to commit to them and abandon the other side of her life. And while she cannot decide — as it is tearing her heart in two — the shoes decide for her, leading credence to the idea that they truly are anthropomorphic and that they are the natural, fatal consequence of too much ambition.
In Vicky’s final scene with Julian and Lermontov, Julian says Lermontov is jealous of Vicky and he retorts affirmatively, saying, “I am, but in a way you would never understand.” This is a statement packed with meaning; it reveals more about Lermontov than any other scene. While he recognizes during their initial meeting that Julian’s professor plagiarized his work, he still dissuades him from coming forward with the truth, reflecting on how it must feel for his professor to steal from his own student when he knows he doesn’t possess the same talent. In the scene he speaks pityingly of the professor, but perhaps there’s more of Julian’s former professor in him than he would like to admit.
Lermontov manages the full ballet, picks the right people for the right jobs, directs everyone’s creative energies into one vision, but he’s never onstage and he doesn’t receive the final applause. He is jealous of Vicky’s youth, of her fire, and of her talent that he cannot even come close to possessing. Artists like her and Julian are rare, and they can never feel what those on the outside can, the desperation and the envy when they see the paramount of their form. While Julian loves Vicky, he doesn’t see her talent as clearly as Lermontov does, and Lermontov loves her in an entirely different way because he can see her singular talent, nothing else. They both want a part of her, but the parts are combined within her and to split one from the other would be a kind of death. The ballet and the story collide in this scene: Lermontov is the Shoemaker offering her the shoes and Julian is the Boy offering her his love. In the ballet she can’t take the shoes off; in the reality of the characters Vicky does not want to take them off. To do so would be to relinquish dance – her passion.
There’s something about the whole film that feels like a dance of fate; all of these people were meant to find one another. Julian and Vicky were always going to fall in love, Lermontov would have always put on The Red Shoes ballet, and the red shoes would inevitably bring them all together in this internal and external struggle. Was it ambition in the end that killed Vicky or was it the fact that she couldn’t separate her art from her life? The movie doesn’t give us a clear answer, it leaves that for us to decide. Similar to the modern-day tale of artistic ambition Whiplash (2014), we see the highs and the lows that push the artist to their brink and to their triumph. Both movies, though, make the audience question whether the sacrifices and the gnawing self-doubt were worth the payoff. I’d like to think the great lesson so many have taken from The Red Shoes is that there needs to be a compromise and a balance as an artist. All artistry requires sacrifice, but to give your full self up to art is a slippery slope.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories.