Women Have to Have Killer Shoes: Deadly Doppelgangers and the Role of Women in THE RED SHOES
17 November 2013
A central female struggling in a patriarchal society is a hallmark of The Archers, and Vicky, from The Red Shoes (1948), is no exception. Like Joan (I Know Where I’m Going), Sister Clodagh (Black Narcissus), and Sister Ruth (Black Narcissus) respectively, Vicky veers away from the traditional roles for women; she chooses a career in ballet over domesticity. Moreover, Vicky attempts to establish an identity for herself based on her passion for ballet. Yet, like all The Archers women of the 1940s, Vicky’s nonconventional purists in the strict patriarchal world of ballet must be addressed in the film’s conclusion, and, ultimately, it is not her pursuit of a career over domesticity that kills Vicky, it is her misconception that she can have both.
In short, The Red Shoes comes from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same name. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), a leading ballet director comes to Covent Garden for the premiere of his latest ballet and meets Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), an aspiring ballerina. Initially, Vicky does not stand out to Lermontov; yet, when, Boronskaja, his prima ballerina, decides to leave the company, pursuing a more domestic life as wife, a role opens up for Vicky to fill. Working tirelessly, Vicky prepares for the lead in his brand-new ballet, The Red Shoes. In stunning Technicolor, The Archers film a 15+ minute surrealist ballet sequence in which Vicky dances he heart out, propelling her into stardom. Vicky’s world changes, and she goes on to dance in countless ballet’s under Lermontov’s direction. Eventually, Vicky falls in love with Julian Craster, the composer of The Red Shoes. Although Vicky repeatedly mentions that dancing is her life, she decides to leave the company and marry Julian. Time passes and, by happenstance, Lermontov runs into Vicky on a train. He offers her a return to ballet, with the opportunity to dance The Red Shoes, the role that made her a sensation. Vicky agrees, but does not tell Julian. Unfortunately, when Julian finds out he confronts her in her dressing room, where Lermontov also stands, pressuring Vicky take the stage. Ultimately, the tension is too much for Vicky. She flees the theatre and throws herself in front of an oncoming train.
Reading the film on a slant, part of the reason Vicky is allowed to pursue her independence in The Red Shoes is because she has a doppelgänger, and that doppelgänger happens to be a man. Lermontov, the ballet director, is the same character as Vicky. Lermontov, like Vicky, seems disinterested in domesticity, marriage, and love; he lives for the ballet. Vicky and Lermontov feed off one another; each makes the other strong, happier, and more famous. Lermontov propels Vicky to ballet stardom, and Vicky’s success brings new opportunity to Lermontov. And, because Vicky and Lermontov, as doppelgängers, are mirrors of each other, both characters’ identities depend on the other and validate the other. For most of the film, that is not a bad thing; Vicky and Lermontov’s goals are similar, so they complement one another.
The Archers subtly present visual cues connecting these two characters as doppelgängers. For example, during the opening scene, the opera at Covent Garden, Lermontov is kept hidden from the audience; literally, viewers are not allowed to see him. Viewers do sneak a peek at Vicky, but she is distracted by the ballet and looking away. Neither character is completely revealed until later, after the opera, when Vicky introduces herself to Lermontov at the gala. The suggestion here is that Vicky and Lermontov are not complete when they are separate; figuratively speaking, these characters reflect one another, and that is why Lermontov cannot be seen until he is with Vicky.
Literalizing their reflection of one another, when Vicky leaves the ballet to marry Julian, Lermontov goes into a rage. Up until this point, these doppelgängers have enjoyed success in their ballet partnership, but Vicky’s decision to redirect her life toward conventional domesticity does not agree with her doppelgänger. One way of looking at that is, as Vicky takes on Julian as her “other half,” her actual “other half,” Lermontov, fires back. Lermontov’s anger climaxes when he punches a mirror, solidifying that he and Vicky no longer reflect one another. The once doppelgängers are separated, and Vicky’s decision to leave the ballet not only changes her identity, but also changes his without his consent.
Shortly after, Vicky unexpectedly meets a bitter Lermontov on a train, and he eventually offers her The Red Shoes once more. Importantly, he is wearing sunglasses. These two no longer recognize themselves in one another, and the sunglasses, a buffer, reinforce that.
In the film’s climax Vicky commits suicide by throwing herself off a balcony and in front of an approaching train. Of course the train symbolism is classically significant, alluding to Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s protagonist who threw herself under a train, a woman run over by patriarchy. However, in The Red Shoes, The Archers use trains frequently, building up to their climax. They are the most popular mode of transportation in the film, constantly bringing the ballet all over Europe. The trains run the characters, just as Lermontov runs the ballet. There is a clear parallel between the train and Lermontov; trains are used as a metaphor for Lermontov in the film, as well as their typical symbolic meaning for patriarchy.
That said, the only way the film could end is with Vicky’s death. She stepped outside of her conventional role as woman to pursue her identity as ballet dancer. In doing so, she intertwined her identity with Lermontov, her doppelgänger, who happened to be a male. But, she reneged, trying to change into a housewife for Julian. All this may have been fine for Vicky, but she did not make a clean break, like Boronskaja, the prima ballerina before her. Instead Vicky was lured back into the world of The Red Shoes, and then forced to confront her doppelgänger and her husband, impossible confrontations to survive.
Her death was not because she tried to lead an unconventional, independent life as a woman; she had a male doppelgänger who, in this case, protected her career and fostered her independence. And, her death was not because she tried to abandon that and become the more accepted 1940’s housewife; Boronskaja did that without a problem. Vicky’s death occurred when she tried to be both these things simultaneously.