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Mise-en-scene essay

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yapaxizi's version from 2018-01-01 15:25

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At the heart of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes is a focused and compelling exploration of passion, freedom and the nature of art. In order to effectively convey these thematic concerns, Powell and Pressburger construct the film’s mise-en-scène, what John Gibbs defines as “the contents of the frame and the way they are organised”, so that every detail contributes to our understanding. Most particularly, costume and makeup, space, and setting and decor, are used, both individually and in interplay with one another, to craft the world in which the central character Victoria Page, played by Moira Shearer, inhabits.

 

The use of costume and makeup within the mise-en-scène is central to our understanding of the film’s thematic concerns. Art designers Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson create a world of extremely symbolistic uses of colour, most importantly, with the titular footwear: the red shoes. Red is a colour that connotes ideas of passion, danger, and rebellion, and these themes are key to understanding Vicky’s character. It is her passion for the art of ballet that leads her to become the wearer of the shoes, it is the shoes that fuel that passion to dangerous levels, and it is her attempt to rebel against Lermontov (whilst wearing the shoes) that causes her eventual death. Another important connotation attached to the red shoes is that of blood, linked to the theme of sacrificial love, dying for what you love (as Vicky does), a thematic concern that goes all the way back to Jesus’ bloodied feet on the cross. Throughout the film, Vicky is startlingly vibrant, her fair skin and bright red hair in striking comparison to those around her, such as in the after-party scene after the premiere of the ballet Heart of Fire. In this scene Powell and Pressburger create a deep-space composition in which Vicky is in the foreground colourful and striking, and another partygoer is in the background, wearing all black, and indistinct. This dichotomy clearly connotes the notion of Vicky’s vibrancy and liveliness in direct contrast to those around her. This idea of the world around Vicky being very ordinary and incomparable to her is made clear from the very beginning, the opening shots of the audience waiting for the ballet to start have them dressed in sepia, dark, and dingy colours.

 

Costume is used to present levels of passion and artistry amongst the artists themselves. For example, in scenes in which Lermontov is brightly dressed, within the same frame there is someone less artistic who is dressed in plain white or black. But in a key moment such as when Lermontov hires Julian, Lermontov is wearing an black suit, whereas Julian’s neck is adorned with a golden cravat, his red hair equally bright. Throughout, Lermotov’s costume (wearing all black and sunglasses even when inside) connotes ideas of vampirism - which of course ties into the crucial theme of his character feeding off the talents of others for his betterment rather than their happiness. The Red Shoes is fundamentally concerned with the idea of Vicky’s lack of free will, and this is none the more clear in one of the final scenes in which Lermontov comes to convince Vicky in the dressing room to get onto stage. In this scene, Vicky is wearing a delicate white dress suggesting an angelic innocence, her make up is stark white, making her look like a corpse (foreshadowing her impending death), her lips are bright red and her eyeliner and eyeshadow is very heavily applied, making her look almost marionette-like also. Next to the immaculately presented Lermontov, these images tie together to emphasise the idea that her life always being controlled by others.

 

Another crucial aspect of the mise-en-scène is set design, which Heckroth and Lawson craft to effectively highlight the film’s thematic concerns. Hein Heckroth was also a painter and one can describe the art direction and use of colour as ‘painterly’, the shots, from the opening title cards until the end, are designed to look like pages from a fairy tale book - appropriate due to the film’s origins as a tale by Hans Christian Andersen. This is none the more clear than in the now-famous ballet sequence in which Vicky Page dances the titular ballet. In this sequence it is truly like Vicky (and by extension, the viewer) has entered into a painting. As her mind is opened up to this beautiful, psychedelic landscape, the expressiveness of the colours reinforces the thematic concern of the limitless possibility and power of art. The striking colours of the space keep changing, going from brilliant orange, to pitch black, to icy blue (to name a few), reinforcing the idea of art as a constantly evolving thing. Care is taken to present a range of colours, apart from red, to allow the red shoes to always stand out - a key example of two aspects of the mise-en-scène interacting to particular effect. Setting and costume interact frequently interact throughout the film, such as in the scene in which Lermontov is attempting to convince Vicky to return to the ballet. In this scene, both her and her train carriage are dressed in emerald green, suggesting that Vicky is in tune with the environment around her, and shouldn’t leave it to return to Lermontov. In the scene in which Lermontov comes to the dressing room to get Vicky to dance, the room is filled with flowers. The flowers connote the important ideas of false adoration and mortality (flowers always die) that are central to Vicky’s journey throughout the film. The presence of mirrors surrounding her create a powerful sense of both claustrophobia and voyeurism, the sickly yellow colour of the walls creates the impression of saccharine immaturity, the billowing curtain in the corridor foreshadows her eventual fate, and the spiral staircase she runs down connotes the sensation of her life spiralling out of control. That is to say, setting and decor is constantly and compelling used in this sequence to create a thorough examination of her psyche and the thematic concerns that arise from it.