“The Red Shoes” and the Artistic Vocation: A Cautionary, Cinematic Tale

The 1948 film is a decidedly dark fairy tale that poses all sorts of questions about what exactly the artistic vocation is and, perhaps more importantly, what it should never become.

Just the other day I saw a news item about a proposed new ballet production based on the classic film, The Red Shoes. (The fact that another ballet version was tried on Broadway in 1983 and proved a financial disaster seems not to have deterred the producers.) Given the movie’s subject matter these attempts to turn the movie into a ballet does not surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is how few see within its frames a warning as to dangers of the artistic vocation.

The Red Shoes is like no other film. Made in 1948, in a battered and broke post-war Britain, it possesses a strange and timeless charm. Its title is that of a fairy tale—a decidedly dark one that poses all sorts of questions about what exactly the artistic vocation is and, perhaps more importantly, what it should never become.

The film is the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of Britain’s greatest cinematic pairings. Together they made 24 films in total, with their greatest work coming at the end of 1930s and through the war blighted years of 1940s. The Red Shoes was produced during the peak of this creativity. Even by today’s standards it is a bold, and daring work and, for all its ballet setting, it is pure cinema in all its Technicolor glory.

The story played to the strengths of the filmmakers, being the weaving of reality and another ‘alternate reality’ into a convincing whole, something they achieved so effectively in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Here the balance is more realistic as the ‘other world’ is that of the stage. The fairy tale motif of the red shoes may run through the whole film, but it is as a tragic back-story, telling of the woes visited upon those unfortunate enough to wear those accursed shoes.

Based on the fairy tale of Hans Christian Anderson, the script builds and augments this with a plot that is relatively simple, even if its themes are more complex. A young woman auditions for a world famous ballet and succeeds, eventually becoming its prima ballerina. At the same time, a young composer finds his work recognized by that same company and starts a spectacular career there also. The nexus of both is the company impresario, Lermontov, played by Anton Walbrook. It is he who makes them but also, in time, it is he who shall break them.

Lermontov has to be one of the most beguiling characters in all cinema. He is a mix of attraction and repulsion. His focus, like his will, bends to nothing other than his art; ballet is his raison d’être. In so doing, he has become the lord of all he surveys: all in the ballet company look to him, hang on his word, observe his whims, or merely await his moods. At one point, a collaborator reminds the impresario that he cannot change human nature no matter how hard he tries. To this assertion Lermontov counters that he will then ignore it. But what it is to be human isn’t so easily dismissed, no matter how inhuman one has become.

Into this world, steps a young woman, Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer. She is ambitious, determined to become a great ballerina. When she meets Lermontov, she sees in him the same ambition and passion for ballet. Unknown to her, a Faustian Pact is being entered into. Inevitably, she ascends to the forefront of Lermontov’s own ambitions as he recognizes in her a great talent. She is willing to be molded and shaped—indeed, she is thrilled at such a prospect. Young and innocent, she is also blind, or just unwilling to perceive the pitfalls ahead.

The third party to this is Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring. This young composer is first introduced watching a performance of a new ballet that his then professor has ‘composed’, only to discover his own work is in fact being misappropriated. He goes to Lermontov to remonstrate. The impresario coolly gives him advice: it is better to be stolen from than to have to steal. A shrewd judge of artists and their characters, the older man proposes that the younger man work with his ballet company, an offer readily accepted. The relationship with Lermontov is, however, never as intense as that with Vicky. Craster is far too independent minded for that; but professionally at least, he flourishes.

The artistic high point comes later with the ballet of The Red Shoes. Craster orchestrates the music to the sombre Anderson fairy tale. A pair of red shoes are coveted by a young woman; finally, they become hers and, thereafter, she can dance like never before. There is only one problem: she cannot stop dancing—all the way to her death. This is not so much a fairy tale as a warning.

Vicky is to dance the lead role. It proves to be a triumph for all concerned, not least Lermontov. At this point, the future looks golden. He plans an all-conquering world tour with Vicky at its centre. She is to be the jewel in the crown with which he will—like another who dreamed of world domination, Napoleon—crown himself. Then the unexpected happens.

Just as all seems settled in the world of Lermontov’s ballet company, a very human emotion comes into play: love. Early on in the movie, Lermontov expresses intense displeasure at his last prima ballerina leaving the company to get married. On hearing of the latest rumors of a relationship between the composer and the dancer, this same displeasure resurfaces. Only this time more intensely for Vicky is someone he has ‘created’ and, like all creators, Lermontov expects his ‘creatures’ to do as bid. Her falling in love with the increasingly free-spirited Craster is not part of that creation. He broods, and waits for confirmation that this is indeed the case, and, as he does so, stares angrily into a mirror before smashing his fist into his reflection, fearing that his desires are about to be thwarted. There is no better cinematic portrayal of hubris.

Lermontov is a man in control—not just of others but also of himself. Random emotions, such as love, are intrusions into the world he has created. When Craster comes to see him and reveals his feelings for Vicky, it is not that Lermontov does not understand, but more that he cannot comprehend why such feelings should trump what he is offering instead. In that short encounter, we see into the soul of a man who has sacrificed all for his artistic dream, and, in so doing, has become less human as a result. The impresario has turned into a magus, not so much weaving the magic spell of his art as being in thrall to it, not possessing, but rather, being possessed by the gift.

The couple leave and are wed. Love looks to have triumphed. It proves not to be the case, however, as Vicky is enticed to return by Lermontov. Once more she dons the red shoes. Her husband comes for her and demands she leave with him. She cannot. She is torn between her love for him and her love for ballet; and so, he leaves for the waiting train without her. Thereafter, she hesitates, and then finally tries to follow him. But now it is the red shoes that will not allow her to do so. Instead, they cause her to throw herself from a balcony onto the rail track below, near to where her husband waits. He sees this, and rushes to her side only to hear her dying words asking that he remove the red shoes.

On discovering what has happened, the reaction of Lermontov is simply one of outrage, perhaps not so much at the death of Vicky (the reason for his rage is not explained) as at the final defeat of his plans. The world and those in it remain uncontrollable after all.

This is a movie about vocation, the legitimate following and shaping of the talents that have been given. It is also a warning of their limits. The Christian understanding of vocation is one of gift; in the reception of, and living out of, that gift, one gives oneself. And then, paradoxically, the giver finds his true self. Nowhere more so than in the realm of the artistic vocation, the gift is meant for others, with the artist a conduit (if not merely that) for in the exercise of the gift one participates in the creativity of God and the creation of something true and good.

In The Red Shoes Lermontov represents one who is obsessed by the gift, and forgets the Giver. That obsession leads to moral blindness. He talks of needing to dance more than to live, dismissive of anyone who is not equally and exclusively so possessed. It is the power inherent in the gift that dazzles him, and through its possession the deadliest sin of all enters: pride. Lermontov will not serve the gift; it will serve him, but in the process he has exchanged something for nothing—an all too familiar echo of a primeval choice and its cry of Non Serviam!

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.