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DIRECTED BY: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
FEATURING: Robert Rounseville, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Moria Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars
PLOT: During the intermission of a ballet, the poet Hoffman tells a drinking party stories of three women whom he has loved and lost: an automaton, a courtesan, and an ailing singer.
COMMENTS: Hoffman is a layer-cake of high art contributions: starting with Jacques Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffman,” edited and altered to fit the running time and the producer’s fancies, with the libretto translated into English for the first time, adding an entirely new ballet scene and requiring extensive choreography for the rest of the acts, staged on lavish sets designed by unsung hero Hein Heckroth, and ultimately delivered through the medium of cinema and a magical camera. Offenbach’s final opus, completed only months before the composer’s death in 1819, seems an unlikely candidate for the most lavish cinematic opera ever filmed. Unlike the major works of Wagner, Mozart, or Bizet, it contains no well-known arias or overtures. What it does offer is a number of evocative scene-changes through a variety of romantic locales, which was what likely attracted Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known, together with their customary production team, as “the Archers”) to the project.
Robert Rounseville makes for a bland Hoffmann; he was cast primarily because he played the part on stage, but in his defense he was one of the only actors to sing his own part (most were dubbed and performed while lip-syncing). Lithe ballerina Moria Shearer (from The Red Shoes) takes the spotlight for two top-notch dances, as the sinuous female dragonfly in the opening ballet and in a comic mode as the stiff automaton. With his expressive eyes and even more expressive eyebrows, Robert Helpmann snakes through the stories (and steals every scene) as Hoffman’s eternally recurring Satanic antagonist; a former dancer and choreographer, he performs no grand jeté‘s here, but always moves purposefully and gracefully. It’s fair to say he is the film’s onscreen star: usually, the actors are hardly more significant than the custom-built marionettes.
The sets, dances, wardrobes, and optics drive the experience, not the actors or narrative. Hoffman tours four major settings—the lily pad lake where the dragonflies perform their mating dance; the workshop of the automaton-maker, peopled with marionettes; the decadent Venice of courtesans; the classical marble halls of the singer’s villa on a remote Greek island—in addition to several minor sets (like the beer hall). Each has its own dominant color scheme: green for the dragonflies, yellow for the living dolls, red for the gondolas and bordellos of Venice, and blue for the Greek island. The opening ballet sequence is elegant and surprisingly erotic; the automatons spend their sequence whirling about the cluttered set; the gondola trip is highlighted by a magnificent orgy and a diabolical magician who changes wax to jewels; and the Greek episode starts as the most austere, but ends in a surreal climax as the singer expires. Powell and Pressburger throw in cinematic tricks at every stage. The ballet climaxes with the lady dragonfly, having vanquished her mate, flying off (by dancing up staggered ramps) and disappearing into the silvery moon in the painted backdrop of the night sky. The automation scene includes an audience of extras dressed as marionettes (and real marionettes), and ends with Moira Shearer dismembered (via the simplest of tricks, black curtains) as her limbs continue to dance independently. This is the busiest set, with knickknacks and gewgaws scattered everywhere, including some large freestanding glass panes painted with Cubist/Surrealist shapes clearly inspired by Joan Miró; it also features a remarkable optical illusion, a staircase which is simply drawn on the carpet but shot from a tilted overhead angle to give it the illusion of depth and height. The Venetian interlude uses magicians tricks and jump cuts to depict candle wax turning to jewels and Hoffman’s reflection disappearing and reappearing in a mirror, but a scandalous orgiastic spread, with prostitutes and their clients enjoying themselves on divans surrounded by a gargantuan banquet of fruits and roasted meats, impresses most. The climax of the singer’s saga sees her translucent ghost walking over a golden bridge—above the film’s orchestra, no less—towards a statue of her mother which is backlit with streaming sunbeams. Surprises lie in wait everywhere: intricately designed baroque miniatures, like a carved jester who pops off of a beer stein to serenade a fair maiden hanging on a wall fresco. The Archers slather full-spectrum Technicolor everywhere in the enthusiastic, vivid way typical of the period (a vital sensibility sorely missed in today’s world of muted monochrome cinematography). Although Hoffman’s romantic travails, individually and as a group, amount to little, the overall impression is an overwhelming sense of wonder and magic. The spectacle is, to put it mildly, packed.
The Criterion Collection’s Hoffmann 2022 Blu-ray generously delivers the audiovisual wizardry with a troupe of supporting players: a hearty appreciation by unexpected fan George Romero, galleries of stills and production sketches, the original trailer, and Powell’s short ballet film “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1955) (same story as Fantasia, although with newly commissioned music from Walter Braunfels). The commentary alternates between observations from Martin Scorsese (who describes cinematic techniques and the effect of individual scenes) and historian Bruce Eder (who provides historical contest and biographies of the cast and crew). It goes without saying that this is the edition for Hoffman fans to buy. The movie itself gets a “recommended” for anyone, but for opera/ballet fans, or anyone with a high art bias, it easily rises to the level of “must see.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A pinnacle of Technicolor expressionism, The Tales of Hoffmann is one of history’s strangest, most sumptuous somethings-you-don’t-see-every-day.”–Jonathan Kiefer, SF Weekly (2015 restoration and re-release)
(This movie was nominated for review by Fred, who called it ” pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
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