When I was younger I had the notion of writing a feminist retelling of the Pygmalion and Galatea myth, in which the Galatea character realizes she can’t be autonomous while being a mere creation of Pygmalion and…well, kills him. This was in eleventh grade and I’ve long given up delusions of becoming a fiction writer. A few years later, a best friend had a print Gerome’s Pygmalion and Galatea. The painting of Galatea’s stone body turning into flesh mid kiss is certainly beautiful, but it’s always bothered me. I think the relationship had to go down from there. How can something that is only a creation of one partner’s mind be a member of a successful partnership? My answer: they can’t.
The story of Pygmalion and Galatea has got to be one of the most replicated mythologies in movies, books, and theater. The first thing that comes to most minds is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the stage and film adaption My Fair Lady. I may have a habit of walking around singing “The Street Where You Live.” You might not know that the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes is also a Pygmalion adaption of sorts. In fact, it’s a bit of a meta-adaption, since it also draws heavily on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Red Shoes. The movie may not be my dream feminist retelling, but to me it’s the most comprehensive look at the problem I noticed in Gerome’s painting.
The film tells the story of a young ballerina, Victoria Paige, who lives to dance. She is noticed by Boris Lermontov, a charismatic but tyrannical ballet director (seriously my favorite character trope of all time). Lermontov is one of the Pygmalion elements of the film. He “creates” Paige into a star dancer, but in doing so believes that he owns her. Paige falls in love with wunderkind composer Julian Craster, the other Pygmalion character. For a while he is definitely the “good guy” compared to Lermontov, but the audience soon realizes that Paige is not free from either her lover or her director.
The narratives structure of the film orbits around a ballet based on Andersen’s fairytale of a young girl whose magical red shoes make her dance to death. The shoes symbolize the lack of free will in Paige’s life, much like Galatea had no free will in her own existence. The ambiguous end of the film has Paige hurling herself in front of train after being torn over whether to listen to her lover and quit the Lermontov ballet or perform “The Red Shoes” one last time. Did she commit suicide? Did the shoes make her do it? She asks Craster to remove the shoes before dying, giving her a few seconds of freedom.
There is a tragic beauty in this film that is unparalleled. On the surface, it is just a sad love story. There is a side of it, however, where everyone gets what they want. Vicky wants to dance, and she is able to. Lermontov wants a star, and he has one. Craster is in love, and he is allowed to share that love with Vicky. It’s a complicated commentary on the price we pay for getting our wished granted. Maybe it’s like what Pygmalion (I imagine) dealt with: our perfect dream might have a dark side.