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THE TALES OF HOFFMANN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Pamela Brown, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars
Directors:  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  November 22, 2005

Film **1/2

I've sometimes reviewed films on this site with the mantra "not for everyone", but I don't think I ever meant it as much as now.  The Tales of Hoffmann is a gorgeous, ambitious and original film project from England's Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  But it's also slow, tedious, and entwined with the opera it's based on.  Your like or dislike of the music may directly relate to how you feel about the movie.

That opera, by Jacques Offenbach, is a fantastic yarn based on the works of the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann.  And in the hands of Powell and Pressburger, it became more than a recording of a staged event, but still in close connect with its theatrical origins.  It's a heightened version of the opera, complete with new ballet sequences, remarkable editing, and cunning camera tricks to create the kind of event you couldn't see on a stage, but one that never lets you forget from whence the material came.

Even the opening credits are designed to look like pages in a program.  Pictures of the actors are included with their names.  The sets are extraordinary, but call attention to themselves to add a sense of theatricality.  But on the other hand, there are perspectives that could never be seen on a stage.  Think of the extraordinary shot of a rolling carpet with a staircase design that Moira Shearer and Robert Rounseville dance across...from above, it looks like a real descending shot.  Or the finale, where the dancers are divided into four quadrants on the screen, to give multiple angles of a single dance.  It's cubism in motion.  The combination of these elements make The Tales of Hoffmann something more than a staged event, but without quite fully surrendering to the art of filmmaking.

As with many operas, the story is simple:  the poet Hoffmann (Rounseville) spins his stories for an enthusiastic bar crowd.  Each one involves a fantastic misadventure in love, and each features a nemesis (Helpmann) who ruins his chances at happiness, and whose motives seem more and more sinister with each developing tale.

In the first, Hoffmann falls in love with a mechanical doll Olympia (the elegant Shearer), who comes to life and sings and dances for him, but goes to pieces in the end.  In the second, the object of his affection is a mysterious courtesan Giulietta (the exotically beautiful Tcherina), and he manages to lose his reflection and almost his soul.  In the last, he loves an ambitious singer named Antonia (Ayars), who may be following her mother down the path to destruction.

I guess opera isn't one of my fortes.  Apart from the beautiful opening strains of "The Tale of Giulietta", I found much of the music to be trying.  Maybe it didn't translate well into English, but most of the lyrics were beyond hokey, and the melodramatic strains of Offenbach's score didn't offset them much.  Rounseville did his own singing in the picture; many did not, but since the whole soundtrack was prerecorded prior to filming (much like in animation), there wasn't much lost.  Some of the actors don't even bother trying to lip-synch too well.

As an artistic production, Hoffmann is a stunner.  There are more beautiful frames in a minute of this movie than most films have in their entire running length.  Whether or not that translates into entertainment value is another matter.  Consider an earlier Powell/Pressburger production, The Red Shoes.  It's also big, colorful, and musical, filled with melodrama and ballet, yet it's unquestionably enthralling from beginning to end.  It's longer than Hoffmann, but you won't find yourself looking at your watch.

Yet to be fair, many consider The Tales of Hoffmann to be one of the duo's finest offerings.  Michael Powell reported looked back at it with great fondness, calling it the best work of their early days.  It's looked at today as the last major triumph of their partnership.  It's held in high regard by many modern directors including Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who both share their thoughts on this DVD.

But what the average filmgoer will take away from this movie is something I can't surmise.  It's gorgeous, but empty; all surface and no substance.  I love Powell and Pressburger, and wouldn't discourage any of their emerging new fans to bypass this offering, but unless you're captivated by opera, you might find it a little off-putting.

Video ***

Powell and Pressburger's color films remain landmarks in the medium more than half a century later, and this Criterion DVD demonstrates why.  The colors are extraordinary, fanciful, and vital.  They leap of the screen in glorious splendor.  The print only belies its age a little bit here and there in the margins, but overall, the restoration job is terrific, and fans will be pleased.

Audio **

This original mono track is fine, but modern music fans will notice the difference 50 years make:  there's little to no dynamic range, and the pressure of putting so much sound through one speaker causes a bit of strain here and there.  The singing is fine, but I had some trouble understanding the words...the subtitles come in very handy for that.  All in all, a worthwhile representation of a 1950s film, but nothing extraordinary.

Features ***1/2

Some good extras are included...did you expect any less from Criterion?  For starters, there's a terrific commentary by Martin Scorsese and film music historian Bruce Eder that's thoughtful and insightful.  There is a 17 minute new interview with George Romero, who remembers seeing the film as a child and considers it one of his biggest influences. 

There is a short 1956 film of The Sorcerer's Apprentice directed by Michael Powell, where he got to work with many of his Hoffmann collaborators again.  You can peruse a collection of production designer Hein Heckroth's original sketches and paintings, or a gallery of production and publicity photos.  Finally, there is the trailer, and a good booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Ian Christie.

Summary:

The Tales of Hoffmann is certainly a unique and original film, and that's become something of a rare commodity.  For some, it's absolute magic.  For me, it was lovely, but a little trying at times.  Just remember when I say this that I'm not much into opera, and take my comments accordingly.

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