I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
The Red Shoes is the classic story-within-a-story, but something dissociative separates films regarding ballet from other films involving high art, like opera or classical music. In film, ballet’s been dedicated as a perfect complement of tortured souls. Curiously, though, there’s nothing overtly special or defining about ballet as the saddest art moste potente. But we all can sense that silence and isolation that defines this specific kind of dance.
Isolation, even within a tight-knit group, is inevitable. Only so much time exists daily, and not all of it can be spent in the embrace of a lover or the demands of a career. We all have to eat and sleep and practice general upkeep of our bodies, individually. Ballet, as a solitary/group activity, is a perfect expository foil for the exploration of both the dance itself – its movements and its pauses – and of its dancers – their movements and their pauses. In The Red Shoes, 1948’s masterstroke/Hans Christian Andersen rework, our actors all act silently and swiftly. Their machinations are their own: troupe leader, Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook), has his single-minded focus; the players don’t matter, until they do. Consumed by the purity of the dance, Lermentov spies Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), a dancer of some familial wealth, as the one who will dance his masterstroke and pegs Julian Craster (Marius Goring) to jolt the music into something more than fashionable, but less than garish. Together, the ensemble works to create a masterful representation of HCA’s dark fairy tale. Alone, the experience ruins each of them in turn.
The Red Shoes dedicates almost no time to the exposition of its characters, yet we know how the story ends before dénouement derails the history of our perfect team. It’s unprecedented, but certainly, and with a bit of cheek, The Red Shoes shows its audience what filmmakers and budgets had previously avoided: a seventeen-minute performance-within-a-performance that is not only a high-brow mirror for the story, but also a wordless exposé on its characterization. It’s shot so that it fits sequentially with the natural progression of events; it drags as if interrupting the film, but the sequence is almost too prophetic at the two-hour mark. It’s as if the directors (known as “The Archers” – interesting in its own right) said to us, count to 1000 and you’ll know what you need to. You know and I know that this technique doesn’t work outside of the ballet medium.
The source material, HCA’s original fairy tale, The Red Shoes, translates almost perfectly into film, and in particular this film. In the tale, a young girl finds (however randomly) a pair of red ballet slippers, tries them on and because of mystic power embedded in the shoes, can never, ever stop dancing, to an end characteristic of HCA’s work. The film’s monastic power lies in its ability to create such an eerie parallel to our Vicky’s dilemma. We’re led to believe that she has a choice – dance or love – but in reality, the illusion is much darker. Here’s an exchange, written quite early into the dialogue:
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but… I must.
Vicky: That’s my answer too.
Here’s perhaps a more earnest easter egg, so overtly obvious after the fact, that the barre is set so high for disaster. I don’t know if this is why artists pursue ballet, but I hope modern artists can know there’s at least a third choice.
The Red Shoes added another wrinkle to the fractured thematic fabric of post-War film. In addition to the relaxing of the monastic moral codes in Johnny Belinda and the exploration of futuristic psychology in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, the dissociative parallelism and genre-bending of The Red Shoes certainly left an impression whether you’ll believe that ballet as a high art is also an emotional valley. And oh, how fitting for 1948.