Each of the three main characters in the film – Lermontov, Page and Craster – are elevated and oppressed in equal measure by their artistic muses. For Lermontov, it is the compulsion to dominate and own all that he surveys, which leads to much despair. Yet, it is this ruthless and heartless trait in him which accounts for the stupendous success of his ballet company. For Page and Craster, it is the fundamental necessity to excel in their chosen art forms – dance and music respectively – which lead to much travail. Despite the rather tired storyline of the film, it is the thoughtful creation of these dichotomies and contradictions that add merit to the final product. The central contradiction is that art is life sustaining and destructive in equal measure. This tension is beautifully illustrated through the visual presentation. Nowhere is this better exemplified in the central ballet (The Ballet of the Red Shoes) which carries on for a good twenty minutes. This is an important artistic achievement in the history of cinema and is admired as much as a “cinedance” or “choreophotography” as it is treated as a big musical number. Variety magazine sums up this great aural-visual composition thus: “this superb ballet is staged with breath-taking beauty, out-classing anything that could be done on a stage. It is a colourful sequence, full of artistry, imagination and magnificence. The three principal dancers … are beyond criticism.” (Van Dyke, 2006, p.53)
The directorial team pull off the story-within-a-story plot device with élan. What’s more, the similarity and symmetry between the two layers of the story further enhance its aesthetic appeal. The adept handling of mise-en-scene is crucial to convey this layering, for it cannot be conveyed through dialogues or a voice-over. In other words the story-within-a-story device works best when it is implicitly illustrated than when it is explicitly spelt out. But there would be no meaning for employing this narrative device without carrying forward the content of the inner story to the outer one. Powell and Pressburger achieve this through skilful conception of mise-en-scene in the last half hour of the film. The important scene is the climax and the most important shot in this regard is that of the death of Vicky Page. Lying in disarray and approaching death, the badly wounded Miss Page requests her husband to remove the red shoes she is wearing. That one moment is the concrete union of the two layers of the story, which had till then operated at a conceptual level. Those were the last works of Vicky Page and that final shot of her is one of the most powerful dramatic moments in the film. The manner in which mise-en-scene is handled is largely responsible for the heightened pathos that it expresses. (Van Dyke, 2006, p.53)
While studying the thought processes that were behind mise-en-scene in The Red Shoes, one has to remember the socio-political atmosphere and the time-period of its making. Made in 1948, a few years after the end of the Second World War, this exuberant film is a contrast to the dire and depressing atmosphere of the war years that preceded it. Many critics from Britain reviewed the film negatively in light of its weak and predictable plotline, the grandeur of the sets, etc. Yet, the film was loved by audiences both in Britain as well as the United States. In fact, it was more successful commercially in the US than in Britain. What explains this division of opinion between critics and audiences is the state of the collective public mood in the aftermath of the war. People wanted relief and diversion from the most taxing war time experiences. The least they could care for is the complexity of plot or its novelty. It is a stroke of genius on part of Powell and Pressburger to have tapped into this general public craving. This understanding of what their market expects of their product is transferred to the development of each shot and each scene. Hence the directors paid much attention to showcasing grandeur, eloquence and an atmosphere of revelry for most part of the movie. How better to achieve this end than to marry the theatre of the ballet to the flexibility and dynamics of cinema? This underlying philosophy is evident in the way each scene was shot.