The Red Shoes

In repertory at Film Forum through November 19.

At first glance, Moira Shearer isn’t much to look at. She has a flat, moon face and overplucked eyebrows and a sort of lemony countenance. But then she begins to dance, and she becomes a presence, beautiful and alluring. Dance transforms her into a glittering star.

Shearer’s captivating performance is part of what makes The Red Shoes so spellbinding—that and Anton Walbrook’s deliciously Mephistophelean impresario and the smart, biting screenplay and Jack Cardiff’s intoxicating Technicolor cinematography. More than anything else, though, the titular ballet at the film’s center is what makes it so special. Like Shearer, the ballet is transformed. Unshackled from the confines of a stage and the limitations of physics, it embraces the celluloid realm yet somehow never loses sight of the dancers’ graceful physicality—a paradox, perhaps, but a beautiful one.

Very loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Red Shoes stars Shearer (a professional dancer making her film debut) as Victoria Page, a talented ingenue who lands a spot in the corps of the prestigious Ballet Lermontov. Intrigued by Vicky’s potential, Boris Lermontov (Walbrook), the company’s impresario, casts her in the leading role of a new ballet, “The Red Shoes,” with music composed by young Julian Craster (Marius Goring), another gifted nobody whom he has plucked out of obscurity. “The Red Shoes” makes Vicky a star. Overnight, she becomes the Ballet Lermontov’s main attraction, headlining everything from Swan Lake to Giselle to Les Sylphides. But the new work also marks the beginning of a romance between Vicky and Julian—infuriating Lermontov, who considers the affair a needless distraction for his treasured protégé.

For all the filigrees—the sumptuous scenery, the slow-building action, the antics of the supporting players, the many quotable lines—this is, at its core, a morality play with a suspect moral. Yet writing-directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were too smart to allow Vicky’s dilemma—love or dance?—to become black-and-white. Vicky’s relationships with both Julian and Lermontov are complex, not so easily diagrammed. When Julian accuses Lermontov of being jealous and Lermontov replies, “Yes, I am, but in a way you’ll never understand,” he is correct, and Julian’s failure to understand Lermontov’s motives and, by extension, Vicky’s does not reflect well on their relationship. Sure, Lermontov might make appearances in clouds of infernal smoke (well, train smoke, but the way the cinematographer films it, he might as well be emerging from the bowels of hell), but Julian is creeeeeepy!

The symbolism of those red shoes is similarly opaque—they could be emblematic of vanity or unchecked ambition or even (ahem) a particularly cruel false choice—and the conclusion, though inevitable, is ambiguous. In other words, The Red Shoes might be a fairy tale, but as told by Powell and Pressburger, it’s a fairy tale with a grown-up sensibility, not the easily moralizing of an adult talking at an impressionable child.

It’s also gorgeous. Along with Black Narcissus (another Powell-Pressburger collaboration), The Red Shoes made Cardiff a legend of cinematography, and rightfully so. Eerily hyperreal color saturates the screen—those fateful shoes, for example, virtually glow with red—and the camerawork creatively exaggerates the settings and sentiments, turning a lakeside carriage ride into a mystical, fairy-lit voyage and a descending spiral staircase into an endless plummet toward oblivion.

The “Red Shoes” ballet goes even farther into a vivid, hallucinatory world—less showing what it feels like to see a ballet and more envisioning what it might feel like to perform a ballet, to experience it firsthand. The special effects are primitive by today’s standards but still dramatic and fluid. When Shearer leaps into the red toe shoes and the ribbons instantly wrap themselves around her ankles, the timing is perfect and the effect is magical.