Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story about a woman who dances herself to death, is famous as one of the few films set in the ballet world, its opulent Technicolor cinematography, and self-consciously artistic ambition. It is also insufferable, the kind of preciously preening kitsch that gives “culture” a bad name.
Moira Shearer stars as Vicky Page, an ambitious dancer who insinuates herself with ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). When Vicky insists she wants to dance more than anything else, Lermontov helps her achieve stardom, with the implicit understanding that she is his creation and must first and foremost be committed to her art.
We know the moment Vicky makes her claim that her resolve will eventually be tested and fail. She of course falls in love with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). When he learns about their affair, Lermontov unceremoniously throws out the lovers, although Vicky eventually returns for no better reason than because the story requires it. It gives nothing away to say that when forced to choose between Craster and dancing fame, Vicky is fatally divided against herself, since the parallels with the ballet story make her death inevitable, if ridiculously, hilariously contrived. (She’s run over by a train.)
Nothing so vulgar as common sense intrudes on this rarefied hokum. It hardly matters whether or not Shearer’s dancing warrants the ecstatic praise, or that Craster’s supposedly brilliant score sounds like third-rate Stravinsky. The movie exists for the “Red Shoes” ballet that comes in the middle of the story. The well-mounted high point of the film, the ballet cannot blot out the mannered flotsam fluttering around it like intellectual confetti. Combining arty pastiche and theatrical trompe-l’œil, it does not even provide a very good view of the dancing.
Unless you have a taste for its fussy visuals and gaseous rhetoric, the only reason to see The Red Shoes is for Walbrook’s performance as the Diaghilev surrogate Lermontov. A Mephistopheles with a taste for high fashion, Walbrook simmers amusingly throughout, as if the key to imperious manipulation is to let everyone else boil over. He keeps Lermontov’s programmatic only-art-matters temper tantrums within bounds and demonstrates a subversive wit when his eyes shift back and forth in sly connivance. When he dons his designer sunglasses, others should watch out because he is up to something.
Those others are overwrought stereotypes who might as well wear signs, underlined, with exclamation points, denoting their plot function. (Goring’s Craster is particularly declamatory.) Yet as loudly obvious as their posturing is, the declaiming is needed, for without it, no one could recognize these shrieking harpies and florid shenanigans as anything remotely like life. The film is too lofty for that. Instead, The Red Shoes condescends from a cloud of hot air to enlighten mere mortals about the self-sacrificing tragedies of genius. I’m too stupid by half to appreciate the lesson.