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Film / The Red Shoes (1948)

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"For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art."
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The Red Shoes is a 1948 movie directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose title and general motif derives from Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the same name.

Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a demanding and highly respected ballet impressario whose company is hampered when its main prima ballerina (Ludmilla Tcherina) opts out for marriage, much to his displeasure. A talented dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) are signed on to his company, and he engages them as key collaborators in a new ballet based on the fairy tale The Red Shoes. Lermontov believes that this will be his masterpiece, and that Victoria Page could become his greatest dancer. However, his domineering nature and fear of losing another dancer, gets confirmed when he learns of Victoria's romance with Julian, creating conflict in the company, with Vicky being forced to choose between her career as an artist or her personal happiness with Julian, and finds herself unable to wholly devote herself to either.

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The 1948 film was notable for having an ensemble cast of actual ballet performers and choreographers, including famous veterans of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, namely Leonide Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina, as well as Moira Shearer, who had made a name for herself at the Royal Ballet School.


Tropes appearing in this film include:

  • Ambiguously Gay: Since it takes place in a Ballet Company, every male character that isn't Julian. Not bad for a movie made in the forties.
  • Ambition Is Evil: This is played with. Boris Lermontov is not pleasant to be around but his drive and desire for excellence is legitimate and something shared by all artists, he's also honest about the demands this requires and himself lives alone.
  • As Himself: The choreographer Marie Rambert.
  • Ballet: The form and subject of the film.
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  • Benevolent Boss: Lermontov plays with this trope. He is cold and aloof, yet he listens to his collaborators, offers opportunities to young talent and makes no demands on others that he would not follow on himself. However, if you cross him in any way or go against his beliefs, then prepare for epic snubbing, passive agressive sniping and dirty tricks.
  • Byronic Hero: Lermontov is patterned on this, and the film is ambiguous about whether it agrees with his zeal and his views.
  • Career Versus Man: When Victoria chooses Julian, her dancing career grinds to a halt.
  • Central Theme: The performer's conflict between their art and personal life.
  • Creepy Ballet: The film is set at a 1940s ballet company, where a story similar to the fairy tale The Red Shoes is being staged. The Show Within a Show's heroine is danced to death by her cursed pair of red slippers, while the film's heroine is torn by love and drama and eventually kills herself, seemingly under the shoes' influence.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Near the end of the ballet, the heroine's former lover, now a priest, assumes this position when he enters.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: The Red Shoes Ballet. At first it makes sense as a literal ballet and reflection of Victoria's inner turmoil, and then she grand jetés into surreal land.
  • Doing It for the Art: invoked Boris Lermontov to the point of fanaticism, he indeed asserts art being like religion for him. As per Word of God this was the theme of the film, after World War II and years of being told to die for country and ideology, he wanted to make a movie about dying for your art, with Boris representing this belief.
  • Downer Ending: Victoria, unable to chose between her love and her career, throws herself off a balcony in front of a train. The ballet carries on with an empty spotlight in her place.
  • Driven to Madness: Victoria's hallucinations during the ballet sequence suggest that she is heading there. And by the end of the film, Boris.
  • Driven to Suicide: Victoria leaps from a balcony and falls in front of an approaching train, which hits her.
  • Emotional Torque: The finale is a good example of this. Dramatically, the theme of the film that art-and-life is inseparable the parallel between the Show Within the Show and the offscreen drama of Vicky Page means that her death at the end, seemingly possessed by her dancing red shoes or a sudden act of madness leading to her death makes sense. However, logically, Vicky Page was in the dressing room and not yet ready for the show, the red shoes are not costume, but props in the drama, so she shouldn't actually be wearing it before the show begins, yet emotionally and dramatically it was necessary that she wear those shoes and dance to her death.
  • Family Versus Career: Boris believes that "you can't have it both ways." and that dancers who marry end up being worn down and lose their talent. The film seems to agree with this.
  • Famous-Named Foreigner: Boris Lermontov. As in, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, one of Russia's classical poets and author of the poem called Demon.
  • Fiery Redhead: Victoria, though not in personality, where she's calm for the most part.
  • Flaming Devil: Boris Lermontov is strongly implied to be Satan in human form. As with nearly the entire cast of the movie, he's also implied to be gay.
  • Genre Mashup: It's a romantic musical melodrama with the occasional fantasy and horror elements.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Julian understandably accuses Boris of this vis-a-vis Vicky but it doesn't seem to be based on attraction so much as his obsession with being The Perfectionist and being a Control Freak. As per Word of God, this was by intention.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Averted. The film shows that even a talented ballerina like Victoria must work constantly to maintain her technique.
  • Heel Realization: Boris Lermontov's My God, What Have I Done? close-up at the end of the film is filled with this.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: "He has no heart that man", says one of his dancers about Boris when he refuses to show up at her wedding.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Lermontov's beliefs that art requires commitments and sacrifices is this, you need to work hard, practise daily or your talent will become stunted, and you need to dedicate yourself to the crew and group in order to succeed.
  • Maurice Chevalier Accent: Some of the cast speak actual French lines, other speak English with a grotesque French accent.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It's left ambiguous as to whether Victoria tries to kill herself voluntarily or if she's under the influence of the Red Shoes.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Boris Lermontov is based on the famous Sergei Diaghilev impressario of Ballet Russes, noted for his domineering personality, his Muse Abuse relationship with Nijinsky and his genius. Some of the Ballet Russes dancers, such as Leonid Massine (who plays Grischa in the film) appear in this film as well.
  • Novelization: Powell and Pressburger collaborated again thirty years after finishing this film to produce a novelization in 1978. The action of the novel is set in the 1920s.
  • Oblivious Mockery: How Boris and Victoria meet. Boris and Victoria have both momentarily escaped from a party, and he complains at length about being roped in to watch some would-be ballerina perform. Victoria agrees that the set-up was inappropriate:
    Boris: Thank God we were spared that horror.
    Victoria: Mr. Lermontov ... I am that horror.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Many.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: Julian attends a performance of Heart of Fire only to realize that he had written all the music for it. Though Boris Lermontov, in a rare Pet the Dog moment, tells Julian, "It is far better to be stolen from than have to steal."
  • Roman à Clef: The film overlays the Faust legend on the life of the infamous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, despite claiming that "any similarity to real-life persons or events is completely accidental." The movie turns one of Diaghilev's real-life lovers into a woman but removes the sexual tension, so Boris Lermontov (the film's version of the impresario) still comes across as a diabolical homosexual.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Throughout the ballet, visual metaphors and fantastical references to Victoria's own life come alive on the screen, including a portion in which she dances with a floating newspaper that alternates in form between mere paper and the human form of Ivan; this is referential to a windblown newspaper that Victoria previously stepped on the night she discovered she had acquired the lead role in the ballet.
  • Scenery Porn: The cinematography and Technicolor makes the film absolutely sumptuous to the eyes.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation:
    • The film was adapted by Jule Styne (music) and Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) into a Broadway musical, which was directed by Stanley Donen. It opened on 16 December 1993 at the Gershwin Theatre, with Steve Barton playing Boris Lermontov, Margaret Illmann playing Victoria Page, and Hugh Panaro playing Julian Craster. The choreography by Lar Lubovitch received the TDF's Astaire Award, but the musical closed after 51 previews and only five performances.
    • The film was adapted as a ballet choreographed by Matthew Bourne and premiered in December 2016 in London. The production used music by Bernard Herrmann, including Vertigo, in place of Brian Easdale’s Oscar-winning score.
  • Secret Relationship: Lermontov forbids all people in his ballet company to be in love or to have a relationship for he believes that they won't be able to concentrate on their work.
  • The Show Must Go On: . Shortly after Vicky's suicide, a shaken Lermontov appears before the audience to announce that, "Miss Page is unable to dance tonight—nor indeed any other night". As a mark of respect, the company performs The Ballet of the Red Shoes with a spotlight on the empty space where Vicky would have been.
  • Sleeping Single: Victoria and Julian, even after they're married.
  • Take a Third Option: Victoria is forced to choose between Julian, the man she loves, and dancing ballet, which she considers as important as living. At one point, she has a relationship with him, but keeps it a secret. When they are discovered, things get more complicated and in the end she decides to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a moving train.
  • Talent Double: Deliberately averted. Instead of casting actors who could perform a little ballet, or use talent doubles, actual ballet dancers were cast who could act in a film.
  • Time Passes Montage: Used to show the progress of Victoria's career as she moves into principal roles and more prestigious venues.


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