It’s Oscar night, and we’ll soon see if Black Swan wins the award for Best Picture. After reading several Black Swan reviews that referenced The Red Shoes (1948), I decided to watch the vintage film and compare the two that bear striking similarities, including creative visuals.
The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as Vicky Page, a beautiful redhead that is selected as the featured dancer in a new ballet called The Red Shoes that is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale about a pair of mystical ballet slippers. Vicky falls in love with and later marries the young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who has been charged with writing the score for the ballet.
The central character is master manipulating ballet director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). In an attempt to regain control of his ballerina, he forces her to choose between two great loves – her husband or dance. Vicky must decide between having a career or being an obedient wife. Her decision to dance, something she earlier equates with life, appears to outweigh the other.
In a final scene, Vicky, emotionally collapsing under the weight of her decision, begins to lose control of her feet. We see a tight close-up of her distraught face and exaggerated eye makeup, reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s psychotic facial expressions in Black Swan.
Overcome by the power of the red shoes she’s wearing, she steps backward and away from those leading her to the stage, runs out of the building and dives into an oncoming train below. Suicide is her final act. And when Craster arrives moments before her death, a bruised and bloody Vicky asks him to remove the red shoes.
The Red Shoes ballet
The 15 minute Red Shoes ballet is a story within the story. It’s about a ballerina who is offered a pair of mystical red shoes by a strange shoemaker. When she puts them on, she dances like she’s never danced before, but there’s a price to pay.
One night, she leaves home against her mother’s wishes and follows her feet out into the city. She breaks away from her lover, who is taken away by a group of ominous dancers, and she dances with other men in a colorful, carnival-like atmosphere.
When she returns home briefly, her mother tires to pull her back inside, but the red shoes overpower her, taking her back into the city. Then we see the first glimpse of the story parallel. Vicky encounters the shoemaker again, perhaps making the connection for the first time that something has taken over her life, and he, Craster and Lermontov simultaneously flash before her eyes as entities that could control her like the red shoes.
Vicky dances through a series of places that seem otherworldly and falls into a dark area. The shoemaker returns, following her through a street with scantily clad women at street lights who appear to be prostitutes. Then she dances with death among a group of zombie-like figures.
Later, at a beautiful ball, she and other female dancers morph into flowers, birds and clouds in a heavenly scene as they are uplifted by dancing beaus. But the scene is again followed by death. Wearing a grayish, dirty frock, Vicky dances outside a church and through a funeral procession where she encounters a priestly figure. But when she runs to him, she is judged and rejected.
Vicky unsuccessfully tries to cut the red shoes off of her feet with a knife. When the priest returns, she asks him to remove them, and he obliges, but removing them results in her death. The priest carries her inside the church to her own funeral, and the shoemaker takes the red shoes back to his shop. With a crazed expression, he offers them again to his audience in the final scene.
The message is that the red shoes took the ballerina out into the world where she saw life for all it that it was – both darkness and light, joy and despair. And in the end, it made her an imperfect sinner in need of redemption.
The Red Shoes/Black Swan
Lermontov, as other critics have pointed out, is a devilish figure intent on controlling and devastating those around him, forcing them to make life and death decisions. Thomas, the choreographer in Black Swan, is comparable, but he can symbolize a number of ideas.
He represents a society that values women for their sexuality and youth and demands perfection. Some would say he is a replacement father figure. He also works as a device that unites the dark and light in Nina, forcing her to be both saint and sinner simultaneously.
On one hand, Black Swan is about self-love, self-hate and the struggle for physical perfection. Beth (Winona Ryder), once the lead principal dancer, is rejected and replaced by Thomas because of her age and later stabs herself in the face out of despair. She is no longer Thomas’ “Little Princess,” a fatherly term he awards in the end to Nina, who has no other father figure in this film – only a controlling mother.
The film is also about female jealously, closely following the storyline of Swan Lake, a tale that, simply stated, is about a deceptive woman who steals an innocent woman’s true love, prompting her to commit suicide. (It’s what happens to all the lead ballerinas – Vicky, Nina and Beth.) Thomas toys with Nina’s emotions, evoking jealousy between her and other dancers. Nina steals things from Beth (even Thomas arguably) because she wants to be as good as her. The word “WHORE” appears on a mirror in the bathroom after Nina learns she is the new swan queen.
It’s no revelation that this film also contains elements of Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis (1915). Nina begins to scratch and grow feathers, physically transforming into another creature the darker she becomes. And like the red shoes that expose Vicky to the array of life, both dark and light, Black Swan has a comparable central theme.
Nina envisions herself smothering her innocence, then dies after stabbing herself with glass from a mirror in a struggle with her dark self. It’s a movie about someone internally struggling with the dark and light parts of herself, unable to envision them coexisting.
Only when Nina is sexual, dark and sinful can she embody the black swan and dance perfectly. She must be both light and dark – perfect and imperfect – to give a complete performance and succeed in both roles.
That is the ultimate message from both The Red Shoes ballet and Black Swan. A complete person who experiences life in this world is colored by both light and darkness. Imperfection is what makes us perfectly human.