Robert Helpmann looking rather evil in one of The Tales of Hoffmann
(image from www.stylusmagazine.com)
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951)
Last Sunday's showing on TCM was my first encounter with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's conceptual follow-up to their classic The Red Shoes (1948). Hoffmann has been available for a few years now as a Criterion DVD, but despite being a Powell fan I've steered clear of it. That's because I'd seen their later effort, 1955's Oh Rosalinda! (on the big screen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, on a double-bill with The Elusive Pimpernel), and was unimpressed by it. But now there was no avoiding it; I owed The Archers a look at what many people say was their last go at the peak of their powers.
So you've rightfully knocked the world on its worshipful butt with the ballet sequence from Red Shoes, one part Busby Berkeley, another part Salvador Dali. How do you go about topping it? Why, why don't we make a whole film that way! Except that there's a problem right out of the gate. The Red Shoes ballet is, well, a ballet, composed and choreographed for the movie itself. But The Tales of Hoffmann is an opera from the 19th century. When you film a ballet as a subjective, psychological, surrealist dream fantasy, you're under no creative constraint whatsoever. Accordingly, the Red Shoes ballet is a milestone of cinema. With opera, as Powell and Pressburger learned, though perhaps not until after the fact, you can't be so free. You're grounded by the lyrics, or at least The Archers choose to be. They want us to see the actors singing the lyrics. Never mind that the actors are mostly dancers (the Red Shoes triumvirate of Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine leading the team) and that they're only lip-synching for opera singers in the recording studio. There's nothing wrong with that given the circumstances, and it'd actually be more reason to do fewer "dialogue" scenes. But here our filmmakers take a literal approach, trusting in their dancers' ability to sell the dubbed-in singing with their pantomime skills. They acquit themselves well enough, Helpmann as the villain in all the segments doing best, but the fault isn't with them but with the way that Powell and Pressburger hobble themselves by taking this approach. Like Busby Berkeley, they had smashed the proscenium arch in Red Shoes and turned dance into a genre of cinema. But Tales of Hoffmann is inescapably stagy no matter what tricks the directors try. As a result, no matter how creative the set and costume design (and the latter is very good), the magic of Red Shoes, for me at least, just wasn't there.
Hoffman may interest fans of fantasy cinema. The film follows the Offenbach opera in presenting three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann as episodes of the writer's own life. He tells his tales in a tavern during the intermission of a ballet, expecting a ballerina to meet him there after the show. He has a rival (Helpmann in the movie) who strongly resembles all the villains in his tales. All the tales have a supernatural element. The Tale of Olympia is the story of Dr. Copellius's living doll and Hoffmann's infatuation with her under the influence of magic spectacles. The Tale of Giulietta concerns a Venetian courtesan and a magic mirror that can steal Hoffmann's reflection. The Tale of Antonia features a young woman who is forbidden from singing by a father who thinks it'll kill her, and a malevolent Doctor Miracle who entices her into a fatal performance. Through all his adventures, and at the tavern, Hoffmann is attended by a young man, Nicklaus, who in the opera and the film is played by a woman. What the opera tells you, and the film does not, is that Nicklaus is actually an honest-to-goodness Muse in disguise, hence the female performance. Cinematically each episode has its moments, but for me they came only sporadically. While the tales are German and the opera is French, the libretto was adapted into English.
Wikipedia tells me that, of all people, George A. Romero has proclaimed Tales of Hoffmann his favorite film of all time. Considering that the Tale of Olympia ends with the living doll being torn to pieces, I can actually believe it. Otherwise this is more likely to be a favorite of opera fans and those who think that art direction can carry a picture by itself. This is another style-vs-substance showdown in which style loses. Hoffmann is similar to Sin City (if in this way only) in its conceptual misguidedness, but like Robert Rodriguez's comic-book experiment, it probably has fans for whom style is enough. Fortunately for me, TCM followed it up immediately with The Red Shoes, and my faith in Powell and Pressburger was restored.
Here's a clip from Hoffmann, featuring Moira Shearer in a skintight costume in a sequence that was cut out of the film for many years. Unlike the rest of the film, this is pure ballet, and some people might consider Shearer alone worth the price of admission.