“One of the most famous and gorgeous sequences in the film is when Vicky is driven to and then climbs the steps to Lermontov’s villa above the Bay of Monaco, where she learns that she will star in “The Ballet of the Red Shoes”—she figuratively and almost literally rises, as Powell writes, “from obscurity to stardom.” The film is also full of inscrutable glances and veiled expressions (often literally, by dark glasses), still waters running deep. But generally it is the way the film is shot and edited, the frequent use of tight close-ups, a particular handling of the tools of cinema technique, that creates the drama; mystery resides in the film’s form rather than by anything inherent to the dramatic content of scenes about ballet dance and ballet dancers.” (Mclean, 2008, p. 160)
The mise-en-scene for the opening credits is well thought over and fits the theme of the film. It begins with a series of garish paintings – by painter Heckroth – that portray the journey of the red shoes. The opening credits merge seamlessly into the first shot of a garrulous and excited crowd of young people who have queued up for a Lermontov ballet. When the gates to the auditorium are unbarred at last, a flood of expectant audience pounds up the stairs to the upper balcony, and in no time, aural-visual elements build an atmosphere of foreboding. As the crowd rushes by in the claustrophobic stairwell, “the camera picks out a playbill on the wall advertising the Ballet Lermontov, and as soon as we are able to tell what it is, it is violently but carelessly torn from the wall by the teeming hoard of closely packed bodies.” (Phillips, 1996, p.334) This is a symbolic exhibition of the world of show business, where the same patronizing audience can in no time turn against a production and spell its doom. The next shot is that of the graceful and gorgeous Victoria Page, her aristocratic background writ in the tiny tiara that she wears in the shape of a crown. Her socio-economic background is again visually expressed by showing her in a box-seat with her aunt. She also holds binoculars in hand as a marker of her privilege. This sort of attention to visual detail is maintained throughout the film, even when the unfolding action onscreen is rather un-dramatic.
The framing and editing in the scene where Vicky realizes that she has been accepted as a ballerina into Lermontov’s company is a good illustration. Just before the scene cuts from her happy and dreamy face, “we hear what seems to be a terrible scream that turns out in the next shot to be a train whistle. The physical intensity of many of the scenes in The Red Shoes is startling even now, as is their formal beauty, the way that the mise-en-scène is crafted to make mysterious the world in which these people are supposed to operate.” (Phillips, 1996, p.334) This scream of the train whistle is important, for it recurs in two other places later in the film. The second occasion is when Vicky and Julian meet late in the evening when they were staying in the same hotel. The last occasion is when Vicky fatally falls on the approaching train and commits suicide. Hence, the train whistle appears at key moments in the narrative when something most eventful happens. First it is the achievement of inclusion into Ballet Lermontov. Second is when the romance between Vicky and Julian takes shape; and finally at the moment of Vicky’s suicide. Such use of symbols and motifs not only prove the excellence in screenplay and direction but also indicate the meritorious mise-en-scene of the film.
- Andersen, H. C. (2002). Stories and Tales(H. W. Dulcken, Trans.). London: Routledge.
- Grist, L. (2012). Powell Godard Scorsese: Influence-Genealogy-Intertextuality.CineAction, 89, 28+.
- Mayer, G. (2003). Guide to British Cinema. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Mclean, A. L. (2008). Dying Swans and Madmen: Ballet, the Body, and Narrative Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Phillips, G. (1996). British Cinema Re-Viewed. Literature/Film Quarterly, 24(3), 332+.
- Street, S. (1997). British National Cinema. London: Routledge.
- Swynnoe, J. G. (2002). The Best Years of British Film Music, 1936-1958. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press.
- Van Dyke, H. (2006, Winter). The Red Shoes: Bobby Short in the South of France. The Antioch Review, 64(1), 52+.