Black Swan countdown: Red Shoes retrospective

Natalie Portman and Moira Shearer's dramatic makeup

Natalie Portman follows in the footsteps of Moira Shearer

My poster of Gillian Murphy as Odette-OdileAs soon as I saw the trailer, I knew I would see Black Swan, whether it were a swan or a turkey, simply because of my intense interest in the subject matter. I’m even more excited now that the buzz is good. Swan Lake has evolved into, among other things, an exploration of the duality within the self (originally the role of Odette-Odile was split between two ballerinas, rather than performed by one). I’ve even created a poster around that concept. This is the territory Black Swan seems poised to explore. If it does become a classic psychological drama, it will take its place alongside an earlier ballet film, The Red Shoes, a cinematic landmark in expressionist Technicolor.

The ostensible conflict of The Red Shoes is between Vicky Page the woman and Victoria Page the prima ballerina. “You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies on the doubtful comfort of human love will never be a great dancer,” the dictatorial impresario Lermontov proclaims. The message of Hans Christian Andersen’s red shoes parable, as told by Lermontov, is that the demands of art cannot coexist with human emotion and frailty:

At the end of the evening, she gets tired, and wants to go home. But, the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets; they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by; love rushes by; life rushes by. But the red shoes… dance on.

Vicky Page is more down-to-earth than her doomed heroine status suggests. When her eventual lover, the composer Julian Craster, describes the imagery that inspired his musical score—she will be transformed into “A flower, swaying in the wind. A cloud drifiting in the sky. A white bird, flying”—she disagrees.

“It’s hard enough to get off the ground anyway, without being a bird or a flower.”

“Aren’t you going to imagine anything on the first night?”

“Yes, a war between me and the audience.”

Vicky / Victoria

Vicky / Victoria

The powerful symbolism of the pitiless, possessed red shoes is engrained in the public imagination—but the movie isn’t really about the choice to prioritize art over life. Yes, the central ballet deals with the self consumed by art, but the movie as a whole is driven by a love triangle. Lermontov’s artistic absolutism (“If some fat harridan is going to sing I must go. I can’t bear amateurs.”) morphs into jealous romantic obsession. Victoria Page’s conflict is extrinsic, not intrinsic—she is perfectly willing to pursue happiness in life and greatness onstage at the same time, but is not allowed to do so by the men who seek to monopolize her. The mother-daughter conflicts and lesbian scenes in Black Swan may represent a shift from this paradigm of woman dictated to and desired by men, though Vincent Cassel’s character looks like a Lermontov figure.

Love triangle torment

Julian and Lermontov are conflated with the ballet's malicious shoemaker

Cruel ultimatums from both men culminate in Vicky’s torment and accidental death. I can’t wait to see if Natalie Portman’s character emerges from her own torments actualized or annhilated—I’ll enjoy the angst but I’m hoping for a fate better than Vicky’s.

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  1. […] inspiration, lettering, Red Shoes, type by beckhen While I was collecting screencaps for yesterday’s post on the doomed heroines of Black Swan and The Red Shoes, I sat up and took notice of the beautiful […]

  2. […] excited enough about the Natalie Portman/Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan that I already posted about its potential connection to a great dance psychodrama, The Red Shoes. The older film […]

  3. […] Black Swan countdown: Red Shoes retrospective (synthesthete) […]

  4. […] wondered earlier whether Nina Sayers would meet a better fate than Red Shoes character Vicky Page—if she would be […]

  5. […] Pressburger and Michael Powell, creators of Black Swan predecessor The Red Shoes, are the masterminds behind a genuinely warped film from the point of view of a murderous voyeur. […]



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