The Tales of Hoffmann

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The Tales of Hoffmann is not a film that’s going to sit well with everybody. This isn’t because it’s a bad film, far from it, but because it’s an opera. I really can’t see any way around it; if you don’t like opera you’re not even going to approach this movie. I’m sort of indifferent to opera, and I found it a bit wearing. However (and this is a very big however), it is still a fantastic film, and has all the magic and color of any film the Archers have made.

The Tales of Hoffmann is constructed in a frame narrative, with the three main stories being told by a famous poet, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in a bar while waiting for his prima ballerina girlfriend, Stella (Moira Shearer). In this outside story,  Count Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) is pursuing Stella as well, who has the three aspects that Hoffmann has encountered in his previous loves: artistry, virtue, and desire. He then tells three tales to the rest of the bar of women he met previously that exemplified each characteristic, although he ends up losing them all. The first, Olympia (again played be Shearer) is a mechanical doll, and Hoffmann falls in love with her after being tricked to believe she is real. The second, Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) is a courtesan told to win Hoffmann’s heart for the devil-like Dapertutto (Helpmann again). The third, Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a terminally ill singer who dreams of achieving success like her mother did, and is torn between marrying Hoffmann and pursuing her singing aspirations.

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I wasn’t too interested in seeing this film until I heard the story. I love the way it connects with the Archers’ other films, even though it was written in the previous century. The three women reappearing (though they don’t look the same, they become linked because they are all examples of Hoffmann’s ideal) over the course of Hoffmann’s life is reminiscent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Of course, there is the rather frightening idea of women being reduced to goals rather than people, but that’s what makes it interesting I suppose. Furthermore, Antonia bears more than a little resemblance to Vicky Page in The Red Shoes, unable to choose between life and art.

Now before you start thinking that this is just a filmed opera, let me stop you. It’s not like an opera was going on and Powell and Pressburger just decided to set up camp and film it. The soundtrack was recorded first, so the actors (the only singers that appear onscreen are Rounseville and Ayars) are dubbed the entire time. Even though the music is obviously paramount, the film was actually constructed more like a silent, without the worries of synchronous sound. This was the Archers attempt to make a “composed film,” with images that follow the music, and they would have appear to have succeeded. It’s an audacious project and the results are fantastic, I only wished I liked opera more.

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I’m very sad to say that I had a hard time watching this one. There were a lot of trick shots that were really cool, and the production design was elaborate and beautiful, but opera plots are pretty hard to follow when everyone’s singing all the time. I had to turn the subtitles on; even though the opera is translated into English, I had a hard time understanding what they were singing. The emotions come through loud and clear of course, but the mechanics of the plot were drowned out. It’s exhausting to watch; I had to watch each story separately with breaks in between. However, I did get through it and I’m glad I did.

The Tales of Hoffmann is never going to be a film I watch over and over again, but I respect it greatly. It’s an interesting experiment that ended up working, mostly. It demands a lot of the audience, but it gives a lot to us too. The visuals are simply spectacular, and there are many small moments of wonder throughout. You have to sit through all that singing to get there, but they are there.

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Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Bruce Eder’s introduction for The Criterion Collection

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