Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Red Shoes (1948) - Analysis and Ballet *image heavy*

Seeing The Black Swan reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Red Shoes. Wow, this movie is amazing! I just love everything about it. Okay, I may deduct some points since I couldn't figure out what accent Boris was supposed to have (French, Russian, neither?), but it still a great movie. It has a great story with great parallelism, the actors are great, the people in charge of the movie clearly did their research about the theatre, and the actors can actually dance as well! The themes explored are unique, even to this day. So let's just dive on in and take a look at this wonderful movie!

The story is based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale by the same name. The original story can be read here. But this particular telling is about a young ballerina named Victoria, or Vicky for short. She has a career, but longs for a big career. The drive for such a career comes from her passion. A wonderful quote in the movie is when her and Boris meet for the first time at a party. Boris asks her why she wants to dance, and she asks back, "Why do you want to live?" He responds, surprised, "I don't know exactly why, but I must." She finishes by stating, "That's my answer, too." Her passion for her art clearly drives her to be better and better. Not once is thought that she wants this for the money--she is already from a wealthy family. She doesn't seem to be seeking fame because we are never given hints if that may be the case. She just strives to improve her art, which she loves with all her heart.

The second main character is a man named Julian Craster. He is a young composer, and, like Vicky, lives for his art. He works as a composer and as the orchestra pit conductor. He is Boris's pawn, and Julian sacrifices some of his hard work to Boris in order to have the opportunity to create even more. Julian falls in love with Vicky and wants to be with her, but both their careers get in between the two lovers.

Lastly is Boris Lermontov. This is the antagonist of the story. Boris is a complex character. You're never quite sure what his motive is, but you know that he lives for the art. He wants the best out of everyone so they can achieve something wonderful together, yet he is selfish. He doesn't help Julian when his work is stolen. When Julian confronts him about it, Boris offers him a job at his prestigious theatre instead. Julian seizes the opportunity, but remains in Boris's clutches. Boris also loves Vicky, but whether this love is for her talent or for the beautiful woman herself is unknown. I suspect it is something of a mixture of the two. Either way, he tries to manipulate Vicky and control almost every aspect of her life. Still, you can't fully hate him since Vicky does want a successful dancing career, which Boris is more than happy to give her.

I was going to write a full summary of the entire story, but after a huge computer crash, I lost everything I already written. I will probably post a complete summary as a separate blog post. So here are some pictures as well as details on the ballet portion and other bits of the movie.

Rehearsing Giselle

The sets are amazingly beautiful.

There is also a strong use of lights and colors to take advantage of the technology they had. This adds much depth to the film. Besides, who would want to see dark grey shoes when the story was supposed to be about red ones?

Color is also used as symbolism, and not necessarily in the traditional sense (white is innocent, black is evil, etc.) but to show a separation.
Vicky is lit by the blue stage lights and Julian is lit from the pit lights below.
Though Julian and Vicky are lovers, their lives, when it comes to their arts, are separate. They could never be truly together if they both wish to achieve greatness. This can be seen in the color scheme as they try to work together. This particular scene is them arguing over the speed of the music and if its suitable for her dancing.
The actress who plays Vicky did a wonderful job acting. Not only is she great at acting, but she can also dance her own parts. Before this movie, she actually was a professional ballerina. After much convincing, she took the movie part. Her being able to dance her own parts really adds to the movie since, as a viewer, I don't feel as if I'm being lied to or being talked down to by the movie's director. I can tell when you cleverly cut away from the actress during dancing portions. I'm not an idiot. So thank you Red Shoes for finding the perfect woman to play Vicky.

The movie is also wise in creating an enchanting ballet called, you guessed it, The Red Shoes. The director knew that the viewers want to see the fruits of the characters' labor, and they oblige by creating a wonderful ballet. The cinematography during the ballet is perfect as to not distract from the dancing, but to add depth to the performance. Now we move into the ballet itself. There is an HD version on Youtube. You can view it here.
The ballet is a metaphor for Vicky's passion for dancing. In the fairy tale, the shoes won't allow the girl to stop dancing. The girl dances and dances until she dies. Vicky's situation is similar, only her passion keeps her dancing forever. She wants to dance so much, that she'd even consider giving up a close lover, like Julian, in order to achieve it. The desire is so strong that no matter what chapter she is in her life, she will always want to keep dancing, all the way to death.

The ballet starts with the cobbler making the shoes. I swear, if there's a remake (heaven forbid, but if), I can see Johnny Depp playing as the cobbler. I mean, just look at his makeup:
Vicky emerges from her home, and goes to the cobbler:
In the window she sees the red shoes. In their place, she sees an image of her dancing in the shoes. She dances pas de deux with a young boy. The boy seems to not want her to have the shoes. He tries to distract her and pull her away, but the call of the shoes is too strong. The choreography for this scene is amazing. It really conveys the message of how much she longs for these shoes, or in the case of the metaphor, her longing for a dancing career.
The cobbler gives her the shoes that he made especially for her, even though other girls in the town are desperate to have them. She dances around in them and later that night, attends the festival in town. Here is a particularly colorful bit. All seems well and she still wants to keep dancing through the night. I believe this is a metaphor for the beginning of her career as a professional ballerina. Everyone wants the prima ballerina spot, but she was the one who snagged it. All seems great and she feels content as her passion for art is not yet jeopardized.
She dances with many boys at the festival, but shows interest in no one in particular.
It's hard to see in this picture, but with the red shoes, she dances over a transparency of a boy, showing that she is willing to put aside romance so she can keep dancing.
The festival comes to an end. The color literally falls from the panels. The fun is over and she is ready to go home, but the shoes aren't ready to stop yet. Her passion for dance won't let her settle down and relax. She must keep going.
The shadow of the cobbler reaches for her. She looks upon him in terror. At this point, the cobbler turns into Boris and Julian respectively. I think this is supposed to symbolize how both people play almost antagonistic roles in her career. Vicky runs from the cobbler/Boris/Julian character and gets transported to a more serene scene where she dances alone. Her passion has become a sanctuary.
The serenity doesn't last too long. She starts falling.
And lands right into a pas de deux with a man made of newspaper.
This is her dance with the critics and response she will get from her performance.
The man made of newspaper returns to his papery form. The cobbler appears again. She tries to take off the shoes again, but to no avail.
The dancer spins right into her awareness of her own mortality. The background looks like a decaying city and even more like a graveyard. Strange creatures surround the lampposts. The dancer is frightened of most of them. One reaches out for her and she goes in to take her hand, but is scared away again by the creature's companion. She tries again to seek companionship. She has been dancing for so long and she's lonely now. The next creatures she approaches aren't as frightening. She reaches for them, but they quickly sidestep her, revealing the cobbler behind them. He grabs her hand instead. I think that since all the people are in couples by the light posts, they may represent Vicky's fear of commitment.
Have I ever mentioned how much I love the cobbler? He's awesome. Anywho... the dancer runs away from him and through a wall. There she finds a man that reminds me of Two-Face.
He looks like a corpse, but a half-dead one. She's frightened of him, but dances with him anyway. She has one foot in the grave now as she begins passing more and more signs of death, such as a lit grave:
The next thing she knows is that she's surrounded by grotesque monsters. Death is all around her and she becomes more and more aware of the looming consequence.
As the monsters fade away, she feels alone again. Only her red shoes, or her passion for dance, has kept her going, but she longs for an intimate contact as seen by her dancing on a lonely island.
She solves this by dancing into a ballroom scene. Here she meets the boy of her dreams, or in this case, Julian. He walks right up onto the stage with her.
But she can't be with him. She pushes away her dance partner. Her shoes are calling to her and want to keep dancing. Or in her case, her longing to dance is calling her to keep performing. The audience turns to sea, possibly reflecting a later scene in the movie where Vicky and Julian have moonlit carriage ride by the sea.
She dances offstage. The next scene is a funeral outside of the church of her old hometown. The dancer appears, her clothes now tattered and dirty.
She walks up to the church, still dancing, and tries to remove the shoes from her feet. The priest appears. She shrinks away, but quickly realizes that it's nothing to fear. I believe this is where she realizes that only death can end her passion to keep dancing.
 She begs him for help.
The procession enters the church. The priest, sadly, backs away from the dancer as well. The dancer lies exhausted on the steps, but not for long. The cobbler appears, holding a knife.
She tries to cut the shoes from her feet, or perhaps her entire foot off as the fairy tale goes? But the branch turns into a harmless branch. She tosses it aside and it turns back into a knife again. The shoes force her to keep dancing again, this time with the cobbler. She becomes more exhausted, collapsing on the ground at times.
The priest comes out to see what the commotion is about. He sees the dancer struggling with the cobbler. She runs to him when she breaks free. She begs the priest for his help again and collapses to the ground. She desperately gestures to the shoes.
At last, the priest removes them easily. The cobbler appears surprised that the priest was able to remove the shoes at all. The girl faints, but it is not quite known if she just passes out or passes away. At last, the shoes are off. The priest carries away the girl's body as the cobbler approaches the discarded shoes and begins to dance with them. This final scene closely resembles the final scene of the movie itself.

The entire ballet and story of the red shoes is a metaphor for a performer's passion for her art and how this passion struggles with other desires such as intimacy. The dancer must pick, but either way, her passion will drive her to keep performing and may even cause her to toss other people away from her, just as the red shoes did.

The music for the ballet is splendid and it even won an Oscar. The ballet can also be taken at face value or delved into through its symbolism. Heck, the entire movie is a wonderful piece to watch. If you can't find a copy at the store or at your library, here is a place on Youtube where you can watch it: The Red Shoes. Personally, I would recommend trying to find an actual copy since the quality of the movie can make a big difference to how you perceive certain things.


  1. Excellent description... I knew there had to be much symbolism here and questioned other suggestions that this story resembles a soap opera! Thank you for sharing. Your dedication to thoughtfulness is apparent.

  2. Great and thoughtful analysis.


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