The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale concerns a spoiled girl who puts shoes and parties above duty to family and God, and is punished by being forced to dance until she dies (the problem of Susan is the version I grew up with). The 1948 film is still about the expectations placed on women, but the religious abnegation is chucked out. Instead, the competing existential projects of a student composer and a ballet director nurture and then tear apart the existential project of a young ballerina. Vicky Price has to choose between being the supporting wife of the former or the star of the latter's show. At the end we learn that her husband is just as controlling and unyielding as the inhumanly ruthless director who we are encouraged to hate for most of the film. Being almost physically pulled apart by both male forces, she dies. The red shoes come to mean not frivolity or sexuality (Susan Pevensie's lipstick and boys), but the eternal, impossible dance between living for others and living for your own life-project.
The film is less successful at delving into the drives that power this creativity (and self-creation). When we meet Vicky, she already knows that life to her means dancing. Boris and Julian are the same. But art is not the same as craft, and we get precious little insight into what powers Julian's music or Boris's direction. It is suggested that Vicky serves as the muse for The Red Shoes - for both men, although Boris's denial of human nature suggests he isn't just looking to get into Vicky's pants (as he is when he reserves a table at a restaurant after her first performance) but that he's questing after some kind of platonic ideal of ballet. The Red Shoes itself is designed to mirror Vicky's conflict, but she's not aware of this when she is performing it. She only sees presentiments of her future. The ballet is an imperfect mirror anyway, the sequence doesn't quite reflect the film's plot.
It is amazing to look at. I've grown up with colour films and yet the Technicolor in The Red Shoes is still dazzling, as are the sets, costumes and make-up, which convey the full glamour of the theatre. The ballet itself quickly dispenses with stage and audience and uses the most up-to-date cinematic effects to not only add pizzazz but dive into the psyche of the dancer, haunted and egged on by the two men in her life, the only spectators that matter. It's a feast, though not a completely satisfying one.