The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Robert Rousenville, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine

The Tales of Hoffmann is one of those lovely movies which is a personality test for the viewer. The movie is a technical marvel, totally beautiful, beautifully aligned. It is no small thing to decide to take an opera, which are essentially theatrical, and turn it into a cinematic endeavor; as an adaptation of a play, more or less, The Tales of Hoffmann stands out because it has no interest in running back the opera with more realistic sets. What the Archers accomplish here is utterly fantastic, using enormous paintings and memorable costumes to dazzle. There are few names that create a mental image of a film faster than Powell and Pressburger, who brought Technicolor to its highest heights; out of all of their shared color pictures, The Tales of Hoffmann is maybe the most beautiful. The costumes and makeup are essential here. In a movie like A Matter of Life and Death, there’s a limit to just how ridiculous and lovely the costumes can be because its protagonists are military personnel and a psychologist. In Hoffmann, there are no such limits, which is why we get Moira Shearer and Edmond Audran in these luminous costumes for a ballet which, frankly, is outside the movie’s major plot lines. (The Dragonfly sequences are relatively understated in comparison to just about everything else happening in the movie; what they remind me of is Fantasia, which is extravagant praise for something relying on artistry on and through real people as opposed to animation.)

It’s how we end up with Robert Helpmann having the most absurd fake eyebrows I’ve ever seen in my life. (They’re like little fluffy praying mantises. How can I make myself grow these in real life?)

I’m less fond of Helpmann’s “I’ll show you how snake-like I can be!” turn in the Giulietta chapter, but Ludmilla Tchérina wears this insensibly jeweled necklace that, at the demon Dapertutto’s command, returns to the candle-wax he shaped the jewels from.

Attention must be paid to the way that the filmmakers bring the story full circle in a short ballet late in the film. Helpmann has played the most villainous character in each of the sections: Hoffmann’s romantic rival, the rich and cadaverous Lindorf – the underhanded and gullible inventor Coppélius – the insatiable devil Dapertutto – the mysterious Doctor Miracle. He stands, holding each of the women from the tales of Hoffmann in his left arm. The consumptive and tragic Antonia is spread-eagled as Doctor Miracle removes his head to reveal Lindorf…or someone like him. Giulietta curls up into Dapertutto’s side and he removes his face to reveal Lindorf? But by now it cannot be Lindorf, for Lindorf had his own uncanny appearance and the man under the mask is far less threatening. Olympia is posed in Coppélius’ arm, reconstructed from her dismembering, and once again the head comes off. The Tales of Hoffmann-the-opera is built thematically, if not musically, to make Hoffmann, Lindorf, and Stella into the three characters over and over again; it’s not like Powell and Pressburger are breaking totally new ground. Yet the reveal doesn’t even recall Scooby-Doo in the moment. It’s much too serious, and the implications are much too powerful. There’s something in each of the villains (a man representing emotion? or motivation?) which carries over. And each time it takes along a woman as a hostage or a partner or collateral damage. The ballet that follows features the three women from the tales in the background and Stella, in heretofore unseen pure white, in the foreground. There are many forms to evil, it seems, and to victimization, and to femininity and beauty. Whatever Hoffmann is (I like bon vivant malheureux, but maybe he’s no more than a well-off gadabout or an unpainted clown) stays the same throughout. Only a bad goatee or a different outfit shows any sort of change in him; there’s no ideal attached to how he is.

I’m also fascinated by the magic glasses Hoffmann buys from Coppélius in the Olympia section of the film. There is no element more referential to cinema itself than the power that the inventor gives the student. Look through this particular window wearing this item and what appear to be mere models move, taking life from their forms. Hoffmann is delighted by the power of the glasses (which also help him see Olympia as a living person as opposed to a wind-up doll). Nothing could be more like a movie; step into the theater, look up at the screen, and the projector runs a little strip through itself and adds light to create an entrancing effect. Hoffmann has seen a movie for the first time; it’s no wonder that the typically dour man is thoroughly amused. And, as is true for any first-time moviegoer, he has to learn quickly and sadly that what you see is not real. His dismay at seeing Olympia torn apart by her creators—sort of like the director and the producer ripping at the final cut of a movie—is at least as much for her falseness as it is for his short-lived grief.

Through all of this, through all of the gorgeous and, in my own viewing experience, unprecedented visual splendor, I found myself largely unmoved. As a college student, I don’t know that it would have factored much into my evaluation of the movie. As an older person, it matters to me far more. I was really invested for only a few moments as Hoffmann gave up his reflection for Giulietta which, again, was made possible through extremely clever technique far beyond what most directors could dream of in the early ’50s. Powell was lucky they didn’t burn him for being a witch. And as the movie went on, I laughed a little, smiled a little, listened a lot, enjoyed the dancing. But it felt empty, like a vase with no flowers inside.

I’m not Betty Schaefer—I don’t necessarily need my movies to “say a little something” or anything like that—but I do need them to rouse me in some way. Shock, sympathy, longing, anger, relief, something. Hoffmann didn’t even leave me cold. Its look should be awe-inspiring, but bigness is not the only component. Black Narcissus has a similar, if more focused and less dazzling, eye on bigness; it finds ways to trap me emotionally with Kathleen Byron’s creeping insanity, David Farrar’s handsome standoffishness, and especially Deborah Kerr’s flinty arrogance. No one has that power here. I love the Red Shoes holdovers – Shearer, Helpmann, Tchérina, Massine – and of them all I think Helpmann does the most interesting work; it just stays at the level of “interesting” without rising to “enthralling.” Massine has significantly less to do and suffers for it. Tchérina, on the other hand, gets to do something beyond breathe “Boris!” at opportune moments, and she proves to be totally spellbinding. Rousenville and Ann Ayars, the opera veterans, are sort of like the sad obverse of the Morrissey song: the more they implore you, the further they get. It is almost certainly the only movie the two of them made after The Red Shoes that can be talked about in the same breaths as their unimpeachable streak of ’40s classics; sadly, it’s still a far cry from the perfection of those movies, a little short on flesh and blood. Nor do I have a clear vision of what could have been done differently to make me react more viscerally. Bringing in the melodrama of The Red Shoes or the real-life influences of Colonel Blimp or Life and Death would have obliterated the film’s vision of a self-contained fantasy. Maybe the best way to appreciate The Tales of Hoffmann is to make it the Embarkation for Cythera among the Archers’ collection; if it does not invest us like The Arnolfini Portrait or The Temptation of Saint Anthony or The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, then it’s a question of genre and not a question of effectiveness.

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