The Red Shoes

“Why do you want to dance?”

“Why do you want to live?”

This Reading List post is about the 1948 film The Red Shoes based on the fairytale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen.
When I was younger I was given a book called The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls by Rosemary Davidson & Sarah Vine. It’s a great (big and glorious) book full of all sorts: such as explaining how to knit or pull off “dastardly tricks”, featuring inspirational women (e.g. Emmeline Pankhurst) and great loves (step forward Elizabeth Bennet & Mr Darcy) and teaching useful life skills like how to eat spaghetti gracefully or ask for the toilets in 5 languages. One of its many sections is “Fab Films” which is a list of 10 films all assigned symbols denoting “girliness”, “love”, “tearjerker”, “diva” or “hunk factor” and all recommended as being perfect for a girly night in. Since I’ve long felt that I should take them up on their recommendation and watch them all I recently added the ones I haven’t seen to my Reading List (4 in all). They assign The Red Shoes the symbols for girliness, love, tearjerker and diva and this is how they describe it:

If you love dance, you’ll love this film. It’s all about a young ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between art (ballet) and life (well, love, actually). It has everything: drama, passion, great costumes and lashings of tragedy – all in gloriously garish Technicolor.

The Red Shoes is about an aspiring ballerina, an aspiring composer and the head of the ballet company they join and centres around a ballet called “The Red Shoes” (it’s very meta). It is quite The Phantom of the Opera in feel. The film starts with the largest, most excited group of people eager to see a ballet that I have ever seen but then, I have never seen a ballet so what do I know? I am still a bit confused by bits of it, particularly during the part where they perform the ballet “The Red Shoes” which goes on for 15 minutes (that’s an 1/8 of the film!). It does, I think, indicate its age, I don’t think anyone would put a section as long as that with no dialogue and no direct plot advancement in any mainstream film today. I enjoy a modern blockbuster at least as much as the next person but I am partial to old films – the painted credits at the beginning, the great orchestral scores, the black & white or bright Technicolor picture and just seeing how they differ in style to films made later, plus they make me feel more cultured 🙂 It may be represented as a love story (especially by BBC iPlayer, on which I watched it) but I don’t feel like it really deserves the description not least because nothing much of the sort (or indeed any particular drama) happens until the last half hour of the film. And while passion for ‘the art’ is threaded through the heart of the film and love has a big part to play in the dramatic conclusion I still don’t think love is high enough on the agenda for most of the film for it to be called a “love story”. Perhaps I just feel that it’s more than that. Be warned, though no tears were actually shed by this viewer, the film’s labelled “tearjerker” for a reason, do not expect a feel-good movie or a happy ever after. In conclusion, The Red Shoes is a classic art-centred film (the art here being ballet). The ballet is beautiful, the visual effects are really very impressive. It is a sweeping, romantic, tragic piece. My only qualm is my few moments of unresolved confusion.

A few more specific things which I shall mark SPOILERS:

Never has the phrase “Life imitates art”* ever been taken so literally even if it is technically art imitating art.
Which leads me to “Good grief, Hans Christian Andersen, are none of your tales happy?” to quote Alice Rackham of Classic Alice.
The film makes up for any questionable moments by the bit where they do the ballet without her but not with an understudy or similar, literally just without her – spotlight tracking across the empty floor where she should be dancing. It is hauntingly beautiful.


*Googling this has just led me to discover that this comes from Oscar Wilde which I did not know before now.