Off, off, off with your head
Dance, dance, dance till you’re dead
“Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has nothing to do with The Red Shoes, but those lines keep coming back to me the more I contemplate Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece, re-released from the Criterion Collection this month in remastered 4K Ultra HD format. More than a half-century separates the indie-rock bop from the contemplative film, but it hardly matters. For the sake of art, or for nothing at all, someone will always dance until they’re dead.
Or, more accurately, until she is dead.
We can probably thank the same standards that divide the husbands and wives of The Red Shoes into separate twin beds for ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) narrowly, narrowly avoiding the same fate that befalls the Girl in the Red Shoes. The role in the ballet that made her famous is also the role that breaks her, body and spirit. How could it not? Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s morality tale against female vanity and impiety, the ballet is designed to be a beautiful punishment. To wear the red shoes is to put aesthetics above all else, and the price of wearing them is to dance and dance and dance until all that’s left is a shredded dress and shriveled skin on a skeleton.
It’s all very metaphorical, but The Red Shoes goes further than that into metafiction. Vicky has her own red shoes in the form of her husband, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), on the right and her mentor, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), on the left. One would sacrifice Vicky’s calling for the sake of love (or, more honestly, for the advancement of his own career over hers) while the other would surely drain the life from her just to keep her dancing. As Kate Bush sings in her own song inspired by The Red Shoes, all Vicky wanted from before she even met Lermontov was to dance the dream until the dream came true. But Vicky’s red shoes are a curse, twisting her dream into a nightmare. In the end, is it triumph or tragedy that propels the sobbing ballerina off a balcony and into an oncoming train, choosing to effectively chop off her dancing feet as her literary predecessor did rather than face an impossible choice set before her by the men in her life? She survives her red shoes, just barely, but at what cost?
A familiar story within a familiar story, The Red Shoes is not the first or the last film about men exacting creative control over a woman whose talent massively outshines their own. It’s not even the first or the last to do this within the context of ballet (hi, Black Swan). The Red Shoes stands the test of time not because it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made (although that certainly helps) but because of the ways it explores the differences between a man’s ambition and a woman’s, both subtly and not so subtly. The push and pull between Vicky, Julian and Lermontov becomes a self-fulfilling tragedy as each of them is consumed by a passion so immense that it is not just living, it is Life itself. All else is secondary. “Nothing matters but the music!” Dance till you’re dead.
Unlike the fairy tale, The Red Shoes depicts the price of pursuing an art that destroys the mind and body even as it creates beauty. No wonder artists love it so much. Most famously, it is Martin Scorsese’s favorite film, leaving such a mark on him that even when he’s filming, he “keep[s] coming back to The Red Shoes.” Scorsese himself, alongside Thelma Schoonmaker (his longtime editor and Michael Powell’s widow) was instrumental in funding the restoration of the film that provided the basis for the Criterion Collection’s previous and current DVD releases. The result, of course, is bewilderingly gorgeous. From its first moments, The Red Shoes is a visual tour-de-force as much as a thematic one, as dazzling for home viewers as it must have been for Scorsese when he first saw it on the big screen at the age of 10.
It is not so difficult to see why Scorsese is obsessed with a movie about obsession. This is one of the few films you cannot possibly watch too many times because each time you will see something different, feel something different and, above all, experience it differently depending on who you are in the moment that you watch it. The Red Shoes is a once-in-a-lifetime creation that only becomes more rewarding upon repeat viewing. Watch and watch and watch, the same way Vicky dances and dances and dances. It’s all a metaphor, anyway. Watching, dancing; dancing, watching. We all have our obsessions. Very few are so beautiful even when they end so horribly.
Triumph, tragedy, no choice at all. “Put on your red shoes,” David Bowie once commanded, “and dance the blues.”