The Red Shoes (1948) was originally a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Anderson, and although it was adapted into a film by The Archers Powell and Pressburger, many of the same themes still exist, such as the girl’s desires to dance. The mental state of Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, is explored extensively in the Ballet of The Res Shoes, the colour red is referenced to throughout, and the desperation to succeed is something that has transpired from the original fairy-tale as well. The narrative concerns this essay will focus on are the instability of Vicky’s mind explored through the scene in which she dances the ballet of The Red Shoes. It will also look at how the visual style assists the audience’s expectations of the film from the opening sequence and the first scene. This particular film has been chosen due to its plenitude of exploitation of visual style to support and influence the audiences understanding of the film’s narrative concerns and themes.
The mise-en-scène translates from the French as ‘staging’ or ‘putting into the scene’ and thus has its provenance in theatre rather than cinema1. However, fairy-tales are often adapted for film due to their dramatic nature and accessibility for all ages. The fairy-tale origins of The Red Shoes is alluded to from the very beginning, with the film opening with an extreme close-up of an atmospheric flickering candle, then zooming out to show a book with ‘Hans Christian Anderson’ written on the spine in ornate gold lettering. The candle sits on the book, with a white-feathered quill on one side and a charcoal black inkpot on the other side. Behind, a piece of tattered, aged parchment nailed to the wall, reads “The Red Shoes”, written in bold, blood red paint. In front of the book sits two small, bright red ballet point shoes, the ribbons frozen in curls out to the side horizontally.
The mise-en-scène of this shot, which takes up less than a minute, visually heralds to the origins of the film and gives us an insight into what the film will be about. According to James Monaco, mise-en-scène is the filmmaker’s tool, which ‘alters and modifies our reading of the shot’2. So the red of the writing and shoes being representative of love, passion and anger was carefully picked by Powell and Pressburger to introduce a motif that will be engrained into the audiences subconscious from the very beginning. The shoes themselves being fairly self-explanatory as a symbol of ballet, poise and elegance let the audience know that they will be important, and as the opening credits show, they are concentrated on more as the introduction continues. The camera technique of extreme-close up zooming out to the view of the whole frame gives a gradual exposition of the fairy-tale idea of the film. The use of a candle as lighting gives the piece an aged feeling as it flickers on the archaic parchment and quill, however the candle is not really the source of light, it is in fact full front lighting which washes out the objects, giving them equal importance.
The animated backgrounds of the opening credits support the fairy-tale ideal, with the red ballet shoes in a fixed position in the centre while the backdrops change. The flowers and sunrise images juxtaposed with the flames and dark trees show the different periods in which the tale has been told, as though it has been adapted in many ways since it’s original creation.
The saturated use of primary colours accentuate the affect of the mood changes, giving the opening a dream like quality, colour adding ‘an entirely new dimension’2. The fantastical feel to the animated opening is encouraged by the major orchestral music, adding to the feel of thematic continuity.
Cinematography depends largely on how the filmmaker transforms perspective3. In the next shot, perspective is played upon to give the audience an understanding of where the scene is set and the status of the characters in the shot.
The first shot of the actual film is from a low angle short lens shot of a staircase and the audience are immediately brought into the action by the sound of crowds shouting. If we are to take into consideration what Bernard F. Dick suggest, that sound is an integral element of mise-en-scène 4, then as the first noise made by actors in the film, this shouting is important to the film, and assists the intrigue created by the low lighting, lack of physical actor presence and the open form of the shot, exposed by the first actor walking into the frame. The plastics of this shot include off-white and green walls with a dusty window lit from the outside and a wall lamp giving off minimal yellow light. From this, the audience become interested in where the scene is being shot, and expectant of a performance once the character in tails appears.
When the first actor enters the shot, as he is being lit from behind, his shadow is thrown onto the wall making him seem larger, the perspective relations3 meaning that the characters shadow seems larger than normal because of the back light. This gives the impression of importance and stature, supported by his formal dress of tails in comparison to the two doormen who are in grey uniform. The doormen calling him ‘Sir’ explains the status quo to the audience further as well as the shot reverse shot with the actor in tails being above the two doormen, and the fact he gives them instructions based on checking his wealth-connoting pocket watch.
As the door opens, the camera is at knee level with the actors and the student run towards it, giving as sense of a stampeding crowd. Then as the students run up the stairs, the camera following them from above, the audience notices the plain yet smart nature of their clothes. The frame then switches to a static shot of the camera slowly zooming in on the poster of The Ballet Of The Red Shoes while the students run through the corner of the camera. The next shot is of one of the doorman on the floor being trampled as students run over and passed him up the stairs, which cuts to the students ripping the poster as they run pass.
The editing of this sequence is sharp and fast, reflecting the sense of urgency portrayed by the students running for seats in the theatre. The focus of the short lens encompasses all the actors at once, giving no particular student more technical advantage than another, and the lighting washes the scene with no preference. The sequence of film resulting from the montage of shots put together with calculated steadiness creates a sense of urgency, but carefully controlled. The director has chosen the closed proxemics of the stairway and put a large number of fast moving actors in it, but has balanced this with using a steady camera and full front lighting so as not to totally disorientate the audience.
The mise-en-scène of the backstage before the ballet of The Red Shoes starts is lacklustre in comparison to the front of house, the back of the set being plain board with writing on, and crowded with ballerina’s practicing individually. The lighting washes out the features of all the actors and gives no individual preferential highlighting. The set is chaotic with props scattered on the floor and the door broken. The plastics here assist the audience’s understanding of the theme of Vicky’s state of mind being chaotic because they physically show the chaos she is surrounded by. Costume can index emotional and psychological status1, and Vicky’s costume is simple, white and corseted, which shows her purity and fragility of mind. This is contrasted with her red lips, another homage to the theme of the colour red, and juxtaposed with her costume later on as it becomes ragged and dirty, insinuating she has become tarnished and worn out.
The lighting at the beginning of The Ballet of The Red Shoes is dark; the scene is from the audience’s theatrical perspective of a proscenium arch stage. As the red curtains are drawn, Grischa Ljubov played by Leonide Massine is revealed centre stage with a spotlight focused on him to begin with, followed by full stage overhead lighting. This high-key lighting gives an even diffusion to the shot, resulting in low contrast between brighter and darker areas1. The set is a large, colourful painted backdrop, which becomes clearer as the camera cuts to a close up of the scene, giving the audience the cinematic advantageous perspective of the stage. The camera and spotlight follow the subject as he dances on stage, at which point a dissolving montage takes the ballet from the opening shot to a scene with a backdrop of a communal village setting, with a company of dancers and then focuses on Ljubov, dancing as the shoemaker, behind a glass shop front window, holding the red shoes. The montage here does not show us the entire dance; it alludes to it5, and the use of dissolving from one scene to another is a cinematic privilege that assists our understanding of Vicky’s mind as the time is moving quickly and seamlessly.
It is apparent that the shoes, which are lit by a spot light, are meant for Vicky when she comes to the window and see’s a holographic vision of herself dancing in them. This is our first glimpse into Vicky’s mind, and the use of editing here to create a ghost-like image of Vicky relates to her constant desire to dance and perform. There is a subtle flashing light on the shoes when there is an extreme close up. In Western culture, we see flashing lights on emergency vehicles and in film or theatre to represent the distress of the mind or disorientation. When the shoemaker dances with the shoes in his hands, the same subtle flashing spot light is used, this warning becoming a motif. The shoes have become a prop, which have helped to pick out the character3 of Vicky. Often elements of mise-en-scène will work in patterns developed across the length of a film6. The shoes stand on point unattended, still lit by a flashing spotlight, and as Vicky jumps into them the ribbons magically do themselves up. Again this use of editing speeds up the process of the dance, reflecting how much Vicky desires the performance. At this point, Vicky is escaping into the fairy-tale origins of the ballet, shown by the magical element.
As the set starts to collapse around Vicky, the plastic sheeting with characters painted on falling to the floor, the camera focuses on Vicky’s shoes dancing on top of them, insinuating that Vicky is stepping on her co-stars to get the limelight. This could be deduced as Vicky’s view of them as material and unimportant now that she has the lead role.
The camera follows her through the chaos until Vicky is alone on stage, a low camera angle making the set seem tall and imposing, while Vicky is small in comparison. This camera angle makes Vicky seem isolated and the set being so much larger than her gives a sense of entrapment in another world. When Vicky attempts to exit through the door she initially entered through as it is opened by a maternal character with a warm yellow light spilling out, a large imposing shadow reaches for her and drags her backwards across stage. This ability of something not physical having a presence over Vicky leads us into her fractured mental state, which is supported by the extreme close up of Vicky’s sweaty face with unnaturally lurid make up, bright red lips and painted on eye-brows. You can see the physical strain the dance is having on Vicky encouraged by the key light, the effect of this being that we can clearly see Vicky’s turmoil.
The director here decides to expose Vicky’s splintered mind as he edits the silhouette of Ljubov for a brightly lit Lermontov and then replaces this with Julian. At this point we see her mental dilemma in choosing between her love for Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring, who before the performance generously said he would follow her lead, and between her dedication and respect for Lermontov, who before the performance told her the only thing that mattered was the music. Vicky’s decision is seemingly made as she runs towards the image of Julian, however the distorted perspective and Julian’s silhouette is twice the size of Vicky. Her confusion is then added to, as the camera cuts to Vicky in a fantastical empty stage with a skyline of blue and orange clouds, framed by mountains, quickly replaced by a long shot of a smoky blue wasteland. Gravitational forces seem to have been lost as Vicky jumps and remains in the air for longer than possible and then starts to fall through distorted colours.
Lermontov had asked Vicky early on in the film ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which she replied ‘Why do I want to live?’ showing how dancing is not something she wants to do, it is something she has to do. This is translated into her psychotic state of confusion that is reflected in the setting of these fantastical worlds that she has escaped into in order to deal with the pressure of the performance. Bordwell and Thompson comment that setting is not just the container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action3, shown in how the deserted spaces with backgrounds of far off silhouettes of towns, or cliff edges enters the narrative action by highlighting how isolated Vicky feels in the real world by escaping to this dream world. Even though she is imagining the worlds herself, she is unable to make them happy, safe places.
Colour is an important aspect of mise-en-scène, capable of furnishing motifs that develop across the film3. The colour red was always going to be an important theme in The Red Shoes and it is no mistake that both Vicky and Julian, who fall in love, both have red hair. Vicky’s hair in particular is highlighted by the backlighting in the dance scene to make it appear flame like, possibly reflecting the passion she feels for Julian, as he is then projected, through her imagination, before her. The red ballet shoes throughout the dance scene carry this motif of colour; there are often extreme close-ups of just the shoes, which are supported by flashing red lights when there is a close up shot-reverse-shot of Vicky and Ljubov towards the end of the dance of The Red Shoes.
The colour of the film isn’t realistic, as it is painted on by Technicolor, however it isn’t supposed to be, colour is used to create meaning and subconscious theories6 so doesn’t need to be accurate. The brightness of the red brings the object closer to the audience’s attention, and we develop an association with that object. Much like the montage of attraction that is used when Vicky and two female dancers are held in the air, and then the shot is edited to dissolve into painted images of flowers, birds and finally clouds, all three being beige colours. The affect of this is to associate Vicky as a dancer to these majestic objects, but as they are all pale comparisons, we see Vicky as even more fragile.
To conclude, the visual style assists the audiences understanding of the films themes and narratives by helping follow Vicky’s thought process throughout the dance, and noticing, through the mise-en-scène, how Vicky relates to other characters in the film. The motif of the colour red contributes to the patterns of similarity, difference and development3 of our interpretation of Vicky. The camera editing shows a lot of the ballet of The Red Shoes from Vicky’s perspective, for example when we see a shot of Vicky covering her eyes with her fingers, and the next shot is from her view point as fingers uncover the lens, the audience are acutely aware of the significance of this action and how frightened Vicky as a character must be.
The mise-en-scenè, editing and cinematography of The Red Shoes allows the audience to become active, to indulge in the rich tapestry of the film underneath the surface reading. Powell and Pressburger put together their own ballet company for The Red Shoes, which adds to the verisimilitude of the film, and the use of extreme close-up shots of the actor’s faces throughout the ballet which fills the entire frame allows the audience to see in detail the affect of the action on the characters emotions. The use of shot-reverse-shot sequences in the ballet not only give a cinematic privilege to the audience but also allow scenes to be show the dramatic effects without using montage. Although when watching The Red Shoes the audience may not remember exactly how the mise-en-scène, cinematography and editing affect our interpretation, on reflection they would pick out particular scenes based mainly on what they saw, how they were shown it and how it was put together on screen. In this way, the visual style influences the audiences understanding of theme and narrative through it’s ability to subconsciously assist their grasp of the film.
Screening Date: 8th October
Running Time: 133 minutes
Production Company: Archers, J. Arthur Rank Films, Independent Producers
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric PressburgerProducer: Michael Powell and Emeric PressburgerScreenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Hans AndersenCinematography: Jack CardiffEditor: Reginald MillsMusic: Brian EasdaleArt Direction: Arthur LawsonProduction Design: Hein Heckroth
Boris Lermontov Anton WalbrookJulian Craster Marius GoringVictoria Page Moira ShearerGrischa Ljubov Leonide MassineIvan Boleslavsky Robert HelpmannIrina Boronskaja Ludmilla TcherinaSergei Ratov Albert Bassermann