The world of ballet has served as a flashpoint for a handful of filmmakers over the 21st century, decades after the art form was more dominant in popular culture. In the last couple decades, ballet has served as the foundation for some of the great independent filmmakers, from Robert Altman with his 2003 drama The Company to Darren Aronofsky with his horror-tinged Black Swan in 2010 and Luca Guadagnino with the upcoming remake of Dario Argento’s iconic ’70s tale of terror, Suspiria.

But the best of the ballet films transcends its specific craft, and has become massively influential not only to these newer auteurs, but throughout all cinema in its depiction of the single-minded, almost murderous passion to create art in spite of everything else. It’s a film that turns 70 today and remains timeless: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

(This post contains spoilers for The Red Shoes.)

Seven Decades of Influence

Because ballet is no longer as prevalent in our society as it once was, it may be surprising to know that The Red Shoes wasn’t just one of the last hurrahs for Powell and Pressburger, better known as the filmmaking duo The Archers. The Red Shoes was, in its own way, very successful both in the UK despite a purportedly weak marketing campaign from its distributor and in the United States. Here, The Red Shoes originally opened in just one New York theater in late 1948, grossing over $2 million in that one venue before Universal Pictures realized it might do well in theaters across the country.

Its success here can’t be overstated. If, for example, you’re a fan of the classic MGM musicals An American in Paris and Singin’ In the Rain (AKA the greatest film ever made), you can thank The Red Shoes. The 1948 film is largely focused on an ingenue ballet dancer (Moira Shearer) and the intense relationships she has with a ballet impresario (Anton Walbrook) and a budding composer (Marius Goring). But the picture’s centerpiece sequence is a showcase of balletic artistry, in which Shearer’s character dances the lead in a ballet adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Red Shoes, blending the horrific story with her own personal relationships with these two men. This extended, dialogue-free sequence lasts about 15 minutes, and its mix of color and music is what Kelly used to convince MGM executives of the viability of ballet in his own films, in the climactic sequence of Paris and the Broadway Ballet setpiece of Singin’.

But The Red Shoes does not just endure because of the way Powell and Pressburger capture the beauty and intensity of dance on screen. The struggle at the core of the film is the same kind of debate that has consumed artists and filmmakers for decades: is it possible to give yourself over to more than one muse? Can you be a real artist if you do more than focus on getting better at your craft? Vicky Page, the young dancer portrayed by Shearer, both lives out this struggle and is used as something of a prop by the two men in her life who represent the opposing arguments.

The Battle Between Art and Love

There’s Boris Lermontov (the wonderful Walbrook, who also co-starred in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the exacting leader of a world-renowned ballet company into which Vicky enters in the early stretch of the film. And there’s Julian Craster (Goring, another Archers regular best known for his flamboyant supporting role in A Matter of Life and Death), a charming young musician who becomes part of Lermontov’s group of creatives after realizing that Lermontov’s original composer was copying his work. If the three of them were solely dedicated to improving their balletic work, that might be one thing, but Julian and Vicky are both young, beautiful, and charmed by each other, so it’s not long before they fall in love.

For Lermontov, this will not do. Powell and Pressburger never come straight out to suggest that he’s in love with Vicky. (If he is in love, it’s a truly warped connection and arguably one-sided.) What is apparent is the possessive quality he exhibits with Vicky, which leads him to fire Craster once the romantic relationship is apparent. For a time, Lermontov loses both Craster and Vicky, who exits the company and gets married. But soon enough, Lermontov visits and implores her to return to his company. Though she does, she does so by sacrificing her connection with Craster, whose own attempt to convince Vicky to stay with him – knowing that only one of the two men can be with her in some capacity – fails.

Vicky is torn in this moment, unable to accept the possibility that she can’t have both artistic and emotional love in her life. Certainly, Lermontov’s acidic suggestion that to go with Craster is to “be a faithful housewife with a crowd of screaming children and finish with dancing forever” is both cruel and perhaps not entirely inaccurate to the world of the 1940s. And so, in a scene mirroring the end of Andersen’s fable about the eponymous shoes, Vicky flees the theater where she’s about to perform, unable to choose between Lermontov and Craster. Instead, she dives to her death into the path of a passing train. Though the two men are too late to save her, Craster is able to enact her dying wish: “Take off the red shoes.” Lermontov responds the only way he knows how: he and his company perform the Red Shoes ballet one more time, but with a spotlight focused on an invisible dancer in Vicky’s place.

As in the great ballets, there is an extreme, melodramatic quality to the story of The Red Shoes (in keeping with the Andersen fable at the core of both the ballet-within-the-film and the film itself). All three parts of this strange, warped love triangle hold firm in their passions. Though Vicky, by the end, seems to have been worn down by the results of wanting to dance for her life, when we first meet her, she’s as fierce as Lermontov or Craster.

“Why do you want to dance?” Lermontov asks her, having been forced into a situation where Vicky’s aunt tries to make her dance for the ballet director at a post-show party. “Why do you want to live?” she replies instantly. “Well, I don’t know exactly why, but…I must,” Lermontov says wryly. “That’s my answer too,” is her answer, and one that makes her stick in his mind a little bit longer.

It’s that kind of passion each of the three players represents. For Lermontov, there is nothing but the dance; everything else is a distraction. Vicky arguably feels the same way – the fact that he’s able to convince her to leave Craster suggests as much. Craster’s passion for music is unabated even after he marries Vicky, maybe proving Lermontov’s prediction that Vicky would end up as a doting housewife to the genius composer true. There are no trade-offs in this world. You cannot have a life outside of the art you pursue, or else you are nothing. For Lermontov, those who are not making art are effectively dead to him. Such is the case with how Vicky’s star rises so early in his company; yes, she’s talented, and her commitment is alluring to him. But she also shows up right as the previous female lead of the company is on the way out, pursuing a husband as opposed to pursuing the craft. Lermontov cannot handle his lead dancers doing both, which is why he angles Craster out. There is only art, or there is only family.

The Pursuit of Art to the Death

In the world of The Red Shoes, this is the primary battle: can you be both an artist and a person outside of your art? If you can only be one of those things, which do you choose? This battle has played out in plenty of other great films, both obvious and unexpected examples. Black Swan is an easy example, a remarkable horror film that is heavily indebted to the Powell/Pressburger classic. (The Winona Ryder character in that film is a twisted take on the ballerina who leaves the company to get married here.)  

Perhaps the most distinctive and unexpected of these films would be Ratatouille, which takes an utterly ridiculous premise – what if the greatest chef in Paris was a rat? – and treats it as straight-faced as possible. As disgusting as it could be to imagine a rat cooking…anything, the 2007 Brad Bird film treats little Remy sincerely in his single-minded passion of cooking. It’s easy to forget considering the film’s many pleasures, but Remy is a prickly, sometimes unlikable protagonist. Though that film doesn’t quite get violent, the way Remy pushes away just about everyone so he can prove himself to be a great chef is both perfectly in keeping with the idea of the artist as an alienating figure, and entirely unlike most Pixar characters. The single-minded, complex passion is, in these and other films, admirable and frustrating, as it is in The Red Shoes.

In some ways, this spelled the beginning of the end of the heights of Powell and Pressburger’s collaborations. The year after The Red Shoes, they made the underrated post-WWII drama The Small Back Room; a couple years after that, they made The Tales of Hoffmann, which doubles down on the dance sequence in The Red Shoes and makes it basically feature-length. But The Red Shoes is their last true peak as filmmakers, with their other agreed-upon classics being released earlier in the 1940s. In some way, it’s fitting that their final masterpiece is the one depicting the creation and dissolution of a great artist, of the lengths and depths to which a person will go to be the best ever at their craft. After a peerless film like The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger couldn’t go much higher. Their own passion of art was complete.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: