[This post is part of my Blind Spot Series, in which I watch, for the first time, famous movies I should have seen long ago. And seeing as the movies in this series are generally well known and regarded, I don't necessarily discuss their plots or thoroughly critique them. These movies have already been analyzed to death; so anything I could bring to the table would be superfluous at best. What follows is merely my reaction to watching The Red Shoes for the first time.]
"Why do you want to dance?"
"Why do want to live?"
"I don't the exact answer why, but I must."
"That's my answer too."
I'm gonna try not to repeat myself, but I don't know if I'll succeed. I've covered the subject of obsessive artistic devotion to such a great degree that I now feel I'm plagiarizing myself by returning yet again to this desiccated well. But do so I must, for the subject of Powell and Presburger's seminal ballet musical The Red Shoes is, wouldn't you know it, the very same theme. For me to ignore it would be like reviewing Back to the Future without ever mentioning time travel—or incest. So, yeah, The Red Shoes is all about devotion to one's art, one's passion: whether we can have lives outside of that passion, and the extent to which that passion will consume us. (Yes, you'll note that Darren Aronofsky was greatly influenced by The Red Shoes—as well as Repulsion and a whole mess of other pictures—for his Black Swan, but I'm not gonna discuss that here.)
Before I mention anything else, I just wanna state how floored I was by the photography, set design, and matte paintings in this picture. As you'll know from studying classic pictures, matte paintings were a great tool in the arsenal of old-timey directors. In the days before cgi, extremely talented artists would paint backdrops to be superimposed over images so as to create the illsuion of stuff being there that wasn't actually there while filming (technical talk here). The intent of these matte paintings was to seamlessly blend with the surroundings, to make it seem as if the actors were actually standing in front of mountains, for instance, and not on a sound-stage.
With the The Red Shoes, however, the matte paintings were designed to be purposefully artificial; they were meant to be painterly, to be noticed as pieces of art. Not only that, even the actual sets were designed in such a way as to look artificial. So, even the real stuff looked like living paintings.
What Powell and Pressburger were doing was announcing their presence as filmmakers, as artists, screaming to the audience, "notice this shit." And, indeed, it ain't just the sets that scream artificial. The actual ballet performances within the film contain sequences that would be impossible to actually stage, all results of trick photography. During Vicky Page's (Moira Shearer) performance of the ballet The Red Shoes (a woman buys magical red shoes that cause great dancing ability, but which are impossible to take off; so she dances to death) she magically flies into her red shoes, which are then magically laced; she dances while watching a transparent version of herself dance in a shoemaker's shop; she floats over the stage; she dances with a dancing newspaper, which then transforms into a man; and various other such stuff happens.
This is some outstanding subjective film-making. We aren't seeing the world as it is but as Vicky Page sees it. She is consumed by the art of ballet; she lives, eats and breathes it. For her, a great performance is a transcendent event; it is her purpose in life. But not for long.
When Vicky finds love, the ballet director Lermontov—her shoemaker—gives her a choice between dance and love. If she decides to get married, she must give up dance. It is impossible to fully devote herself, he reasons, to her art if her mind is distracted by frivolous thoughts of love. As he says, “The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comfort of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.”
Which brings me back to my initial point. Is it impossible to balance art with normal life stuff? It's hard to say. This is something I've definitely thought about a great deal. I think it depends on the person. Plenty of great artists have led full lives: marriage, children, all that stuff. But then again, will dividing time between life and art lead to the neglect of both?
Thinking about this issue yet again, I've come to the conclusion that it's probably just a time management issue. The people who do manage to juggle love, art, and leisure just have better time-management skills. They are better able to devote certain chunks of their day to each obligation. Not that The Red Shoes could have approached it from this angle. It'd lose all it's tragic resonance if it presented a practical solution to this theme.