Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Red Shoes, the Line, the Cross, and the Curve

It is a tale of sorrow, of triumph and tragedy. A young woman with a love for dancing obtains a pair of  red shoes. When put on they present a terrifying experience in which she is forced to dance uncontrollably, leading to her tragic demise. Based on that description, you were probably thinking of the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, or the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (the same guy who wrote the stories behind Disney's The Little Mermaid and Frozen, along with the classic fairy tales The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor's New Clothes) which inspired it. To be fair you were half-right.

I say half, because there is something I haven't told you. You see, I'm interested in discussing The Red Shoes, but I'm also curious to bring up a different film, with a name attached that you probably never expected to see pop up on this blog: Kate Bush. For those of you who aren't familiar with her work, she is a very talented British pop star first discovered as a teenager by David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and has since gone on to have an impressive musical career spanning three decades. Her music is so distinct it is almost impossible to fit her work into any specific genre. If anything it's sort of a blend of several different styles that would ordinarily seem mutually exclusive.

Kate was heavily influenced by a wide variety of different works (her very first single was based on the novel Wuthering Heights), and she has plenty of interesting music videos. The story behind this particular work is that in the early 90's she released an album titled The Red Shoes inspired by the 1948 film. Instead of doing a few music videos for specific songs like she would normally do, Kate got the idea to make a short film that would incorporate several tracks from the original album.

The result was a little film called The Line, the Cross, and the Curve. It is an interesting experience if you ever get the chance to see it. I don't know if it was ever released on DVD, but it should be available on YouTube. This movie was not a huge success, and even Kate was disappointed by the final product (supposedly she later called the film "a load of bullocks"). To be fair the low budget does show at times, but at the same time it's an intriguing experiment in what could be considered avant-garde film making.

Okay, technically, it's ambiguous whether the shoes themselves actually have any magical properties in The Red Shoes, but they still play a significant part. In that one the red shoes are only explicitly magical within the world of the ballet itself, as depicted in its incredible dance sequence which condenses the events of the narrative while still illustrating the key events. Outside of the ballet, the tragic fate of Victoria Page ends up being more the result of the mounting tension between director Boris Lermontov (who provides a means for her to fulfill her dream of being a great dancer) and his former composer Julian Craster (whom she loves).

Lermontov is a man who believes that his career as a ballet director should come above all else, while Craster is an idealist who believes love conquers all. Ultimately the tension reaches its peak when both men confront each other in Victoria's dressing room, and force her to choose between them. Victoria is confused and unable to make a choice between her dream and her love, leading to her attempted suicide, or at least that's what it looks like. Ultimately that's the big question: was it the shoes or was it her?

The ending also offers a parallell to the ballet itself when Victoria, who is lying on a stretcher, badly hurt and possibly dying, asks Craster to take off the red shoes. During the dance sequence we saw something similar, when the ballerina she portrays lies dying as a man carefully removes her shoes. In the context of that ballet, it seems as though the ballerina is finally at peace, and here there is a very similar vibe.

The Red Shoes is indeed a masterpiece of cinema, and quite a daring film for 1948. Now granted, this was a British film, but it was still made during the days of the Studio System, and to an English-speaking audience the ambiguity of mixing dreams and reality as seen here was very hard to get away with, but the risk ultimately paid off and the result was an incredible movie that still inspires artists today. I don't think it's too great a stretch to suggest that this film was a major influence on the more recent Oscar winner Black Swan, and of course we can certainly see its influence on Kate Bush.

Plot-wise, the two films diverge in two drastically different paths. The Red Shoes is slightly more grounded in reality, and centers around the stress experienced by the central character of Vicky, and the growing tension that comes as she is ultimately faced with the impossible decision of choosing between the man she loves and her passion for dancing. The Line, the Cross, and the Curve takes on a stranger approach, centering around an unnamed singer (played by Bush herself) who is visited by a mysterious woman that tricks her into wearing a pair of cursed red shoes which dance endlessly, leading to a journey through a surreal fantasy world.

Music still plays an important role in both films, although in very different ways. The Red Shoes is about ballet after all, and so there are plenty of long stretches of time spent without dialogue, particularly during the dance sequences. It's in many ways a very visual piece with some splendid choreography.

Kate's film uses her own music as a driving force, with the plot being set in motion by the singer being tricked into drawing a line, a cross, and a curve on three sheets of paper (which triggers the curse that puts her in the red shoes). The only way to escape from being forced to dance endlessly by the shoes is to reclaim those symbols, something she ultimately does through song.

Now both films are quite the experience and certainly worth your time, but why bring up these two specifically? Well, Kate Bush's The Line, the Cross, and the Curve was clearly influenced by The Red Shoes. In fact, it was based on the album The Red Shoes which also featured a song inspired by the movie. This was actually part of what led me to look up The Red Shoes in the first place after it was recommended to me, since I already knew the title through Kate's music. 

There is a bit of a resemblance. It makes one wonder if the makeup on "The Shoemaker" in The Red Shoes inspired the character known only as "The Guide" in The Line, the Cross, and the Curve.

They are two very different films and it would be futile to compare and contrast them. One is a big-budget musical epic and the other is a low-budget experimental short, but it is interesting to discuss both films at length, and to see the impact one movie had on another. Story-wise, Kate's little film has almost no resemblance to Powell's epic, but the inspiration is there. 


  1. How interesting that she did this--I can understand why it would inspire a musician. I too think The Black Swan tried to capture some of the magic of this film, but failed for more reasons than I can count (one of which though is surely that the heroine went from being unhinged, to more unhinged--not exactly a plot). I'll have to check out this artist. Thanks!

    1. I could certainly see how Black Swan drew from The Red Shoes, at least insofar as it centered around the growing stress of an aspiring ballerina.

      Kate Bush is an amazing singer. Her whole body of work is worth your time if you want to look her up. I highly recommend it.