Why do you want to dance?” the man asks the girl.
The girl pauses and answers his question with a question, “Why do you want to live?” “I don’t know exactly why,” the man responds with a smile. “But I must.”
“That’s my answer too,” the girl responds. We can see in her eyes that she means it, but she cannot foresee the gravity of her words. Even if she could, I doubt she would change her answer.
On the surface, this exchange brings a familiar smile to our face; we’ve seen this before. We have, but not like this. This is The Red Shoes, and he is Boris Lermontov, a ballet impresario played by Anton Walbrook, and no one else could dare muster this level of sophistication, charm and megalomania. She is Miss Victoria Page, a beautiful young ballerina played not by an actress but by the accomplished dancer Moira Shearer. Both are written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on their 10th collaboration in a wave of success that has followed them for the past decade. The Red Shoes is their high water mark.
The story follows the Ballet Lermontov and the company that call it home:
choreographer (Léonide Massine), conductor (Esmond Knight), production designer (Albert Bassermann) and dancers (Ludmilla Tchérina and Robert Helpmann) all operating under the ever-present eye of Lermontov.
Yet, two more are needed, two rising talents that the Svengali-like Lermontov can mold into a star and a revolutionary composer. That’s where Vicky Page and Julian Craster (Marius Goring) come in. Page and Craster are better than average, and rise quickly, taking the Ballet Lermontov to unbelievable heights. Their talents culminate in Caster’s new ballet, The Red Shoes, a show-stopping, jaw-dropping 16-minute spectacle that is guaranteed to etch itself deep within the viewer’s mind.
To craft that ballet, Powell and Pressburger wisely chose not to film a staged ballet but to visually interpret what goes through the ballerina’s mind during the dance. The result is a cinematic tour de force, thanks to cameraman Jack Cardiff, production designer Hein Heckroth, choreographer Robert Helpmann, composer Brian Esdale and editor Reginald Mills. They called themselves The Archers, and their arrow struck the bull’s-eye.
The Red Shoes was released in 1948 and became an instant smash. Reflecting on the success and impact the movie had, Powell would surmise, “For 10 years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”
All movies are worth seeing once, but few films warrant a second, third or even a 10th viewing. The Red Shoes is worthy of endless viewings. With every viewing, it deepens, excites, elicits and emotes. It is a joyous picture with a devastating ending. It is a profound movie that is laugh-out-loud funny. It is an intellectual’s dream that makes even the dullest of audience members want to get up and dance. The film’s existence is nothing short of a miracle.