How “The Red Shoes” Defies Traditional Cinema with Its Fairy Tale Narrative

Powell & Pressburger balanced high & popular cinema, creating iconic films like "The Red Shoes," a melodrama with a fairy-tale twist, blending art & emotion.
The Red Shoes (1948 film)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger uniquely managed to straddle the line between high art and popular cinema over a prolific fifteen-year period, crafting an auteur-driven body of work that stands out in British cinema. Their films, such as “The Red Shoes,” combined the extravagance of fairy tales with the depth of melodrama, challenging conventional narratives and moralities. This film, in particular, explores the intense personal sacrifices and emotional dilemmas faced by its protagonist, Victoria, offering a narrative that eschews simple catharsis for a more complex, tragic resolution that reflects the darker tones of Andersen’s fairy tales. Through their work, Powell and Pressburger not only pushed the boundaries of genre but also infused their films with a visionary flair that resisted the dominant trends of their time.

by Emanuela Martini

Between “high” cinema and popular cinema – The core of Powell and Pressburger‘s work spans from 1939 (the year of “The Spy in Black,” their first, fortuitous collaboration) to 1955 (the year of “Oh Rosalinda!!,” their last musical fantasy, after which they only collaborated on a couple of minor films, and Powell directed the “testamentary” “Peeping Tom” alone). A quick glance at the titles of British films from the same fifteen years that have gone down in history emphasizes the extravagance of their work: documentary-style films like Watt’s “Target for Tonight” (1941), Jennings’s “Fires Were Started” (1943) and “A Diary for Timothy” (1945); war films often inspired by the documentary school, especially in their use of current or archival footage, such as Hurst, Brunel, and Powell’s own “The Lion Has Wings” (1939), Lean and Coward’s “In Which We Serve” (1942), Coward’s “This Happy Breed” (1944), Reed’s “The Way Ahead” (1944), Tennyson’s “Convoy” (1940), Dickinson’s “Next of Kin” (1942), Frend’s “The Big Blockade” (1942) and “San Demetrio London” (1943), Dearden’s “The Bells Go Down” (1943); socially-themed films like Reed’s “Stars Look Down” (1939), Launder and Gilliat’s “Millions Like Us” (1943) and “Waterloo Road” (1944), Dearden’s “The Blue Lamp” (1950) and “I Believe in You” (1952), Crichton’s “Dance Hall” (1950). Then, of course, there is Lean’s “Brief Encounter” (1946) and the three most famous films by Carol Reed, “The Fallen Idol” (1947), “Odd Man Out” (1948), and “The Third Man” (1949). If “Brief Encounter” has not been emphasized enough for its sickly romanticism, to highlight its psychological and environmental traits instead, the three films by Reed have suffered the profound injustice of a hurried, predominantly sociological reading, which ended up attributing the “mythical” resilience of the third to Orson Welles’s involvement. It’s no coincidence that the obsessive consistency of the three films was downplayed in favor of a realistic emphasis (thus also minimizing their authorial traits); this fits with the dominant critical taste of that era and subsequent historiographical trends. Baroque visionary allowed in period films, like the two Dickens adaptations by Lean (“Great Expectations” in 1946 and “Oliver Twist” in 1947), or, even better, the Shakespearean reductions by Laurence Olivier (“Henry V” in 1944 and “Hamlet” in 1948). As for the overtly sexual posters, they are left in the limbo of popular cinema: the women’s melodramas of the 1940s, such as Arliss’s “The Man in Grey” (1943) and “The Wicked Lady” (1945), Crabtree’s “Madonna of the Seven Moons” (1944), Bennett’s “The Seventh Veil” (1945), Comfort’s “Bedelia” (1946), some ghost stories, like Knowles’s “A Place of One’s Own” (1945) and Cavalcanti, Crichton, Dearden, and Hamer’s “Dead of Night” (1945), the B-movie dramas centered around the overwhelming presence of Diana Dors in the mid-1950s (among which, however, there is also an adaptation of the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, much less captivating and polished than “Dance with a Stranger”), leading to the horrific and explicitly sensual explosion of Hammer films. This is nonetheless a cinematic territory from which criticism has kept its distance until not so long ago.

Powell and Pressburger were the only ones who managed, for about fifteen years, to balance between “high” cinema and popular cinema. In this way, they also created the only coherent auteur corpus of English cinema of their era (and probably not only of that one). With the exception of the documentary school, English auteurs seem indeed to exhaust or compromise themselves within a handful of films. Just consider Reed, Robert Hamer, Olivier, Mackendrick, the same Lean (despite his career, until the 1960s, being more than respectable). Think of the cautious understatement in which Anthony Asquith, one of the most interesting and unrecognized English filmmakers, maneuvered, or the premature withdrawal from directing by Thorold Dickinson, often compared to Hitchcock. The roots of the phenomenon are not exclusively structural, although the primary cause of the depletion can be traced back, at least since the advent of sound, to the chronic subservience of English cinema to American cinema.

However, beyond the constant emigration of talents to Hollywood, beyond the monopolization of British screens by American products and the grandiose works on commission (paid for by the Americans even if officially of English production) in which British authors (Lean at the forefront) often squandered their talent, there are more subtle, cultural reasons that have historically blocked the more authentically auteurial expressiveness. A kind of awkwardness in delving into and metaphorizing emotional processes seems to be transmitted from the characters to the authors. This composed decorum only breaks occasionally, in the face of the emergence of pressing social and ideological coagulating factors (hence the documentary, the realism of war films, the free cinema, and much of the last twenty years’ filmic television production), and, traditionally, redeems itself in the fierce self-irony of comedy, the only film genre that is allowed everything, without necessarily questioning its quality. Outside of satire, the breakdown of self-control is often considered a lapse in taste. And, amid so much compression, it really risks turning into an exacerbated and self-satisfied provocation on the verge of good taste (see Ken Russell).

Powell and Pressburger managed to overcome this barrier without falling into bad taste (beyond the intentional reworking of the kitschy romanticism of “The Tales of Hoffmann”) and remaining simultaneously attached to A-list cinema, that of high cost, not dismissible as genre production for popular palates. Aided in this by an unusually fortunate era of English cinema (the 1940s, during which government subsidies and the extravagant whims of producers like Korda and Balcon enabled the debut and maturation of the richest core of British filmmakers) and by public support, they materialized the British unconscious in the form of spectacular fairy tales.

A melodrama disguised as a fairy tale – Outside of Hollywood, the conjugation of total authorship and spectacles is a difficult and, at least, fluctuating endeavor. In the work of Powell and Pressburger, “The Red Shoes” represents, together with “A Matter of Life and Death,” the most perfected moment of this conjugation: it narrates an obsessive and twisted universe disguised as a fairy tale. In this sense, it has an additional twist compared to “A Matter of Life and Death” (which is also a more charming, more inventive, more beautiful film): while the latter triumphs in the happy ending, “The Red Shoes,” with the protagonist’s exacerbated suicide, dramatically leaves its own dilemma unresolved. No catharsis: Victoria Page leaps from the terrace onto the train because she has no answers. Her fall with eyes wide open anticipates Mark Lewis’s rush against the blade and the mirror of his own death. Although the tragic finale has the same cathartic value as the happy one (especially in cinematic melodrama and especially in Hollywood), in this case, something does not work compared to the traditional mechanisms of the genre. The tragedy does not represent a voluntary sacrifice or the expiation of a sin. It does not “purify” the narrative, satisfying morals and common sense (as generally happens in melodrama), but rather it further muddies it, radicalizing the dilemma to an extreme.

A dilemma that is not, as it appears on the surface, between affectionate life and dedication to art, but between a total, all-consuming passion, and thus “cursed,” and a more tranquil, small-bourgeois balance (even in its composed bohemian attitude). The authors’ stance is absolutely palpable, as they contradict in images what they affirm in words, opposing the affectionate common sense of Marius Goring with the satanic allurements of Anton Walbrook. Lermontov can awaken a woman from sleep with the regret of the ballet (in a night scene rich in “vampiric” suggestions), transform initial amateurish stammerings into art, send a ballet on stage without its prima ballerina. Marked by the doom of the magician, he fades into silence all the more human passions. Thus, it is Lermontov who holds the scenes of most intense expressiveness: his disappointment over the missed appointment with Victoria, the destructive chill of jealousy, and, in the end, the silent weeping for the death of the prima donna. Lermontov takes on all the drama, monopolizing the scene, transforming a narratively rather traditional melodrama into a dark work of twisted and unexpressed disquiets. The rich ambiguity of Lermontov’s character, the balance between his restrained human side and his explosive demonic nature, reengages the apparent linearity of the narrative, obscuring its morals. In this sense, “The Red Shoes” subterraneously mirrors the structure of fairy tales (especially those by Andersen), not so much because it hides psychoanalytic symbolism behind character prototypes and conventional situations (in this case, the convention of melodrama), but rather because it sets up the contradiction of the moral conclusion throughout the narrative.

Andersen’s fairy tales are marked by a vein of desperate sadness, a sense of otherness that places them, compared to those of most other traditional storytellers, on a more distinctly romantic plane. They are closer to the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde (true dramas of romantic passion) than to the sardonic nightmares of the Brothers Grimm. Although ultimately fiercely moral, they are driven by regret for the sacrifices that morality imposes. In this sense, with the grim endings they impose on their characters, they are very close to the narrative structure of melodrama. “The Red Shoes,” in particular, subjects its protagonist to a horrifying punishment, forcing her to crawl through the world on her stumps until she has paid for her sin of vanity. This does not mean that, beneath the punitive moralism, there does not linger a sort of romantic affection for the girl who loves the red shoes and dancing, a true cursed heroine, no more nor less than those characters who sell their soul, their reflection, or their shadow to the devil.

The film, without seemingly taking anything more than the prompt for the ballet, actually seizes these suggestions and reworks them in more melodramatic narrative terms, redistributing them between Victoria and Lermontov. From this overlap emerges the complete abolition of the moral, and thus, perhaps, also the most accurate reading of Andersen’s nightmares and torments. Besides, it serves as a mirror of the Gothic-romantic imagination so effective that it has handed down to cinema stories a passionate melodrama as a fairy-tale film.

Cineforum, n. 275, June 1988


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