The Red Shoes [1948] [Criterion] (DVD)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

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Amoeba Review

Edythe Smith 12/21/2010

The tale of a prima ballerina's struggle to stay on top was recently given a fresh face in terms of Darren Aronofsky's newest feature, Black Swan. Several critics made direct references to The Red Shoes because it features a very similar story: a young and beautiful ballerina gets a chance to work for a company of great prestige, ultimately being driven to insanity under the pressure. While this film is similar on a few levels, I venture to say that it does surpass Black Swan on a visual level and has held up nicely in modern tastes. I'd even like to note that the film's surrealism was paid homage to in Black Swan, especially one scene in particular, but I'll explain that in the review of the movie.


This film is perhaps one of the most erotic and sinister pieces of art that I have seen, which is a bold statement when one compares that to present-day cinema. The claim is made simply because of the way love, greed, and desire is executed throughout the story. The saturated and vivid colors remind you of a living creature, and the imagery and techniques will not soon be forgotten by any audience. Comparatively, it is also unique because it not only focuses on the tribulations of the ballerina, but of the composer who is also trying to make his mark.


Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a ballet director who is extremely hard to please. While watching his company's variation of Heart of Fire, a gaudy patron of the arts decides to try and set up an audition with him for her niece, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). The problem is that she practically forced the young lady into his attention by inviting him to a social gathering in which her niece would just so happen to be dancing. Lermontov knows better and rejects the old woman's request, but ends up meeting the young Miss Page later in the evening. He decides to give her a formal audition when she declares that, like breathing, dancing is something that she must do. Once she arrives to audition, she is summoned to sit on the side along with other girls who've been invited by Lermontov, and is discouraged by the emphasis he puts on his current prima ballerina. Referring back to the performance of >Heart of Fire, another major event took place. A group of young pupils came to the performance to see their professor conduct the orchestra. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) sits among the other students and comes to the realization that the entire score is his own creation, and was therefore stolen by his professor. He goes to Lermontov and tells him the news, thus being given a chance to audition for him on the spot and become the new conductor/composer for his company.


While working on their latest ballet, the prima ballerina for the company declares that she is getting married and is leaving the company. Lermontov dismisses her coldly and decides to take a new direction. He goes to Craster and asks him to rewrite the music for "The Red Shoes," which is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Simultaneously, he gives Vickie the chance to dance the principle part. Page and Craster bicker uncontrollably about tempo and pace during rehearsals and eventually settle their quarrels by opening day. The performance is a huge success and, on screen, is the most mesmerizing sequence of events. The ballet is about a young girl who wants to go to a dance wearing a pair of red shoes she sees in a storefront. The merchant is a menacing trickster who has cast a spell on the shoes. When the night is over, the young lady is exhausted and tries to go home, but the shoes wish to continue on and dance the girl to her death. The scene itself is presented as if Vickie is going through a dream-like transformation in which Craster's music helps her imagine that she is experiencing the unreal. Camera techniques that are seen as outdated, such as layered filming, led to shots that are arguably more expressive and satisfying than today's methods. There is even a bit of subtle animation, which, with the dancing, reminded me of Disney's Fantasia and was enhanced by the film's art director, who was a painter.


The performance turns Page into a star and Lermontov decides to have Craster rewrite the music of several ballets and wants Vickie to perform all over Europe. By now, a romance has sprouted between the two young talents, and Lermontov breaks down at the threat of losing another star to romantic pursuits, especially since he believes that Page has the capabilities of being a great dancer. Vickie is thus forced to choose between her love of dancing and her new-found romance with Craster. In a sense, she becomes the woman in The Red Shoes and loses her sanity.


Looking at the complexities of the imagery you find that, for a fleeting moment, they are mirrored in your soul. It sounds sappy, but that was truly the level of emotional commitment that I was obliged to give this movie. Being an artist of any medium, I think it rouses a sense of gloom in terms of balancing your personal life with your craft. The result was both haunting and inspiring, and in all honestly, not something I expected from such an early movie. The ending brought me to tears as the directors try to visually symbolize the held belief that only Vickie will perform "The Red Shoes." I recommend this movie to artists and dancers, but especially to anyone who has ever felt torn between their career and their personal life.


The Red Shoes won two Oscars: Best Color Art Direction and Best Drama or Comedy Score. It was nominated for three additional Oscars: Best Editing, Best Picture, and Best Story.

Grace Bartlett 12/03/2008

The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.

Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.

Every aspect of this film is exquisite! The color photography, shooting locations (which include Covent Garden, London, Paris and Monte Carlo), the brilliant and award winning score by Brian Easdale, and the performances of dancers Moira Shearer, Leonide Massine, and Robert Helpmann all add to the flawlessness of this imaginative picture. Ballet giants Helpmann and Massine choreograph a triumph with the title ballet, danced superbly by all three, with Massine standing out for his improvised dance of The Shoemaker. It was impossible for me to look away during The Red Shoes Ballet as the Hans Christian Andersen tale came to life. At the time it was made, Powell & Pressburger, also known as The Archers, were taking major risks and trying things never before seen on film with this ballet sequence by incorporating surreal imagery, choreography, lighting, and cinematography. The Ballet of The Red Shoes seems to be taking queue's from Surrealist filmmakers, such as Luis Bunuel, and has inspired such filmmakers as Baz Luhrmann and the aforementioned Wes Anderson. It's no wonder to me that The Red Shoes is regarded as one of the most beautiful and touching stories in film history.


A glorious Technical epic that influenced generations of filmmakers, artists, and aspiring ballerinas, The Red Shoes intricately weaves backstage life with the thrill of performance. A young ballerina is torn between two forces: the composer who loves her, and the impresario determined to fashion her into a great dancer. Criterion is proud to present The Red Shoes in its DVD premiere.

Product Details

  • Starring: Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Albert Bassermann, Esmond Knight, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina, Leonide Massine, Austin Trevor, Eric Berry, Irene Brown
  • Format: Color, Dolby, DVD, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Label: The Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: 05/25/1999
  • Run Time: 134 minutes
  • Catalogue #: 44

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary By Film Historian Ian Christie
  • Interviews With Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Jack Cardiff, Brain Easdale, Martin Scorsese
  • Jeremy Irons Reads Excerpts From Powell & Pressburger's Novelization
  • Martin Scorsese's Collection Of The Red Shoes Memorabilia
  • Collection Of Rare Publicity & Behind The Scenes
  • Powell And Pressburger Filmography with Film Clips And Stills
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