Pressburger and Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948)
A young and gifted ballerina is driven to the edge of madness by a controlling company director as she confronts the intensifying pressures of becoming a world-renowned dancer overnight. Although we could be talking about the Oscar-winning film Black Swan (2010), instead let us look back to another dark and visually-stunning ballet film made sixty years prior; Pressburger and Powell’s The Red Shoes (1948). Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fantasy about a girl who becomes possessed by ballerina slippers given to her by a demonic shoemaker, The Red Shoes follows dancer Victoria Page (played by Moira Shearer) as she dances the lead in a ballet based on Anderson’s fairytale only to discover that the highest level of success must always come at a terrible price.
The Red Shoes ballet is presented as a fifteen minute play-within-the-film featuring designs by painter Hein Heckroth and it is one of the most visually impressive sequences from the era of Three-Strip Technicolor. During the sequence, Pressburger and Powell are at the height of their creative abilities with effects that would have been impossible during live performance, such as when the theatre audience fades into the image of a powerful ocean wave crashing against the stage. These innovative visual flourishes were at the time viewed by the studio as confusing and objectionable, and as a result The Red Shoes marked the end of Pressburger and Powell’s successful relationship with Britain’s biggest film financier the Rank Company. Never ones to play it safe, Pressburger and Powell layer themes of ritualism, sexual domination and the hollowness of celebrity through evocative dream-like imagery which makes the film challenging, troubling and pleasure to look at.
Prior to The Red Shoes, Pressburger and Powell’s had directed a string of visually impactful successes that are now considered cherished examples of the British film industry at its best. The lush colour schemes on display in Pressburger and Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) remain impressive and remarkable fifty years after they were shot on the most immense and cumbersome cameras imaginable. Many of the technical advances made during these productions are credited to cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his ability to translate Heckroth’s designs into three dimensional spaces in The Red Shoes is nothing short of miraculous. Cardiff’s innovations in the formative years of Technicolor are considered to be so significant that in 2000 Cardiff was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and in 2001 he was presented with an honorary Academy Award – the only cinematographer to have received such a distinction.
The likenesses between The Red Shoes and Black Swan are apparent to anyone who has seen both films. So much so that I was taken aback that the later made no mention of the former within its opening and closing credits. Officially, Black Swan was not ‘based on’ or ‘suggested by’ or ‘inspired by’ The Red Shoes but the similarities are so numerous that I would argue that Black Swan should have been filed under the adapted screenplay category. In both Black Swan and The Red Shoes, a young dancer rises from obscurity under the mentorship of a cruel ballet director whose interest in her reaches beyond the strictly professional. In both films, the isolation and pressure of sudden stardom reach a breaking point when the fairytale in which the young woman dances begins to exact itself on her life in dreadful ways. In Black Swan, Nina’s relationship with her director is considerably less controlling and all-consuming than Victoria’s with her mentor in The Red Shoes, but it is no less damaging. Perhaps the biggest link between these two films is their respectively tragic endings. Both Black Swan and The Red Shoes are stories in which the ballerina protagonists shockingly die in ways that suggest that their identities have become fatally intertwined with that of the character they performed as. In The Red Shoes Victoria Page leaps from a window seemingly possessed by her red slippers and in Black Swan Nina Sayers fatally stabs herself while trying to vanquish her darker alter ego and dies falling as Odette does in the ending of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In both endings, the indulgent depiction of the artist suffering for their art is taken to an operatic extreme. However, once we look beyond that, Black Swan and The Red Shoes appear to be a strange kind of postmodernist adaptation in which core material reaches out from the page to ruin those interpreting it. The Red Shoes, in particular, illuminates the latent fear found in those fairytales which we have selected to retell and rewrite until they become a self-fulfilling ritual that runs on an endless loop in the back of our imaginations, influencing our behaviour in ways we fail to fully recognize.