The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1951)

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After the smashing success of 1948’s The Red Shoes, with its lengthy fantasy ballet sequence fusing the stage arts with effects possible only in cinema, the writing-directing-producing team of Michel Powell and Emeric Pressburger wanted to make a truly operatic film. In 1951, they adapted Jacques Offenbach’s mostly-finished fantasy opera The Tale of Hoffman, adapted from three stories by writer ETA Hoffmann. Truly pan-European in concept, it’s an English film adapting a French variation on an Italian art form based on stories from a German author drawing on Central European folk traditions (whose story The Nutcracker is also the basis for the most famous of all Russian ballets). The film is entirely dialogue-free, every line sung in an English adaptation of Offenbach’s score by opera professionals, all pre-recorded with the film edited to match the score (all but two of the actors are dubbed, only star Richard Rounseville and Ann Ayars sing their own parts). Divided in three sections with a frame story, Rounseville plays Hoffmann, who is in love with a ballerina named Stella (Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes). During an intermission in her performance, he goes to a bar and gets drunk, telling an assembly of students stories of his three past loves gone wrong. Those stories, about women named Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia, are then dramatized as operettas within the whole.

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Unlike Laurence Olivier’s late-1940s stage adaptations of Shakespeare (Henry V foregrounding the stage-experience of the Globe Theatre, while Hamlet transmuted the play into the contemporary film noir idiom), The Tales of Hoffmann represents a fusion of the two art forms, stage and screen. The film never attempts verisimilitude, its sets are always dressed and designed to look like stages, and each new section opens with a title card program listing the cast for its section (just like Hong Sangsoo’s Oki’s Movie, come to think of it). But the editing and special effects are uniquely cinematic. Two examples: First, in the prologue ballet section, where Stella, performing on stage before an audience, dances across a painted lily pad with another dancer (they’re flowers or frogs or something). When they are tragically separated, the male dancer falls to the floor. But rather than pretend to sink as he must on the stage, Powell and Pressburger use a double exposure effect to allow him to actually sink into the floor and disappear (special effects like this of course abound in The Red Shoes‘s central ballet). Second, in the Olympia section, we see an abstractly dressed stage (the props hang from visible strings emphasizing the puppetry motif of the story) walled with dandelion-gold curtains. Long proscenium shots establish the space, with Olympia at rest on a couch behind a curtain in the back of the stage. When Hoffmann goes to see her, however, we cut seamlessly to a reverse-angle, and see the space from the opposite side. Instead of looking out to an audience as we would if we were truly on-stage, we’re instead within a 360-degree cinematic space, albeit one no less artificial in appearance. Instead of observing a fantasy from the safe remove of an audience watching a performance, we find ourselves lost within the fantasy along with Hoffmann.

a Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion DVD PDVD_001

For me, the film loses a bit of interest after the first hour, when Moira Shearer disappears from the screen (she plays Olympia as well as Stella). The Olympia story is the highlight (Hoffmann is given special glasses which enable him to see automatons as human, the blessings and curses of which are as meta-cinematic as Powell would get until Peeping Tom), though the later two are certainly lovely to look at. I’m not sure if it’s the opera itself I don’t care for, or the English adaptation of the libretto, or simply Rounseville in the lead role, but it definitely begins to drag in the second hour. Still, it’s a must-see film, and the new restoration, brought to life by the Cinerama’s lasers, should be stunning. It may not be the best Powell & Pressburger, but after rewatching it last night, I had the strangest dreams.

The Tales of Hoffmann plays Friday April 24 – Tuesday April 28 at the Cinerama.

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