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Review: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is the arguable peak of a certain Technicolor aesthetic that flourished in the late Forties and early Fifties. In Hollywood, directors such as Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen combined color, dance, music, camerawork and editing in remarkably sophisticated ways in musicals such as An American in Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). On the opposite shore of the Atlantic, the directing and screenwriting team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pursuing a parallel path with their notion of the "composed" film in Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann.
While the Hollywood musicals drew mainly upon American popular music and dance and the Powell-Pressburger films were inspired more by the European cultural tradition, they nonetheless share some striking similarities in their great set-pieces. This is not surprising, since Michael Powell was a devotee of Walt Disney and of Fantasia (1940) in particular, and since Gene Kelly reportedly screened The Red Shoes for studio executives while trying to get approval for An American in Paris. We even find both Singin' in the Rain and The Tales of Hoffmann incorporating rather obvious allusions to Surrealist painting in the visual designs of the "Broadway Melody" number and the "Olympia" sequence, respectively. For me, The Tales of Hoffmann deserves a special mention due to its sheer creative boldness. With its remarkable art direction by Hein Reckroth and photography by Christopher Challis, it is surely among the most beautifully designed color films ever made.
The first time I watched The Tales of Hoffmann, I have to admit that I found the whole thing a little overbearing and "arty." Still, I felt compelled to watch the entire film again a few days later just to savor its eye-popping details, such as Moira Shearer's mechanical dance as Olympia, or the vivid red sculptures of bodies writing in infernal torment, on which the courtesan Giulietta treads in the Venetian sequence. After several such viewings in the space of a couple weeks, I have to say that few films are as rewarding on a repeat basis. Offenbach's memorable music helps. It may not wind up as one of my favorite films of all time, but I can understand why it might be for directors such as George Romero and Martin Scorsese.
The film is heavily laden with trick effects, including slow and reverse motion, flash frames and jump cuts, and there are many self-conscious stylistic choices such as obviously painted trompe-l'oeil sets and the alternation of puppets with live dancers in the Olympia episode. For the most part, such devices fit perfectly with the fantastic atmosphere that the film conjures up. Robert Rounseville may have a somewhat stiff screen presence compared to the dancers Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine, Moira Shearer and Ludmilla Tcherina, but he works well enough considering the function of the Hoffmann character within the narrative as a whole. Rounseville is above all an accomplished tenor, and the role of Hoffmann as conceived in the film demands someone who can really sing. The multiple visions of the Villain and the Beloved, on the other hand, are more flexible and benefit from the visually striking personas embodied by the aforementioned dancers. I've never been a great fan of ballet per se, but I came away with unqualified admiration for Helpmann, Massine, Shearer and Tcherina not just as dancers, but as actors. Their incredible control and expressiveness, especially in terms of their facial expressions, make them ideal collaborators within the film's artistic vision. Tcherina is especially memorable as Giulietta, the ultimate sleek seductress.
However, it must be said up front that the Powell and Pressburger film is not for opera purists. The "Enchanted Dragonfly" ballet is not part of Jacques Offenbach's original opera, but rather is a reworking of themes by Offenbach. The libretto has been translated into English, a practice that most opera companies would avoid today. Also, in Offenbach's original conception, Hoffmann's three loves--Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta--must be played by the same singer, strengthening the opera's underlying unity. Lastly, Offenbach originally had Hoffmann's companion Niklaus (who is traditionally sung by a female like many operatic roles depicting young men) double for the Muse, who appears at the end of the opera to console the poet. It's a shame that this element wasn't retained in the final version of the film, because it gives the story a crucial dramatic payoff and provides stronger motivation for the presence of Niklaus. Still, the basic appeal of the opera, with its famous set-pieces such as Olympia's "doll song" and the languid Barcarolle, shines through.
To be fair, the opera itself has had a complex history. Offenbach died before the opera's premiere in 1881 and the score was not yet completely orchestrated. Ernest Guiraud and other editors made a number of changes in the score over the years, among them altering the order of the acts--the Antonia act originally came before the Giulietta section. Thus many of the seeming peculiarities of the film reflect the opera's performing traditions up to that time. One should also keep in mind that the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, in fact worked closely with Powell and Pressburger from the start , and that his primary concern was to shape the film into a viable cinematic work. If you approach The Tales of Hoffmann with an open mind, then it remains one of the few truly successful filmed operas from a cinematic standpoint.
Considering the sheer exhilaration that emanates from the screen, it makes one a little sad to think that a project like this probably can never be duplicated. It would be difficult to imagine studios today investing in such massive and stylized sets for an "opera film," to say nothing of cultivating the talent required to execute such a vision both in front of and behind the camera. Admittedly, Baz Lurhmann's recent musical Moulin Rouge (2001) comes very close, but one film doesn't signal a renaissance.
The Disc: Criterion's DVD has gorgeous color and detail, as we should rightfully expect with a film like this. Without having seen a 35mm print previously, I suspect that they put a great deal of care into conveying accurately how it looks on film. There are a few minor problems with the alignment of the three color layers as often happens with Technicolor prints, but nothing to detract seriously from one's appreciation of the film as a whole. Mostly, it looks dazzling. The mono sound is very clear, which is critical considering the nature of the film, and the disc helpfully includes English subtitles for those who want to understand every word of the libretto.
The special features include an essay by the noted film scholar Ian Christie, a video introduction by George Romero, a collection of production design sketches by Reckroth, and a full-length commentary track by Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder. Scorsese demonstrates his obvious affection for the film as he points out all sorts of interesting details. Eder offers a great deal of well-researched and useful information on the production's history. The disc also includes the rare Michael Powell short The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1956). It uses much of the same technical crew as The Tales of Hoffmann, but with vastly diminishing returns. Ultimately, that film is the sort of straightforward ballet film that I was initially afraid The Tales of Hoffmann might turn out to be. The Tales of Hoffmann, which has been seen relatively little in the U.S. up to now, is a great discovery.
For more information about The Tales of Hoffman, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Tales of Hoffman, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen