THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, 1951
Starring Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina
Hoffmann is a lovelorn young man in Nuremberg who is watching his latest love, Stella, dance in the ballet. In the interval he goes to the tavern where he tells his friends the tales of the three major loves of his life. Each story forms a separate act of this magnificently staged opera. It is NOT just a film of a staged production but a truly filmic version of the Offenbach opera.
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In Francis Ford Coppola’s new film, “Tetro,” the title character takes his kid brother Bennie to go see “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Bennie is completely captivated by the film’s imaginative use of color, music and movement – as is his much older sibling. The fact that “The Tales of Hoffmann” offers a wonderful experience for children of all ages should come as no surprise. After all, this is a film that essentially presages music videos.
Adapted from the French opera by Jacques Offenbach, “The Tales of Hoffman” is a landmark film and one of the finest achievements of “the Archers” – the creative partnership of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (“The Red Shoes,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”). One of their final productions, “Hoffmann” shows the Archers finding inventive new ways of combining music and moving images.
The narrative is broken up into three extended chapters, each telling a story about the hero’s “folly of love.” Each episode is limited to a single set piece: the first one in Paris, the second in Venice and the third on a Greek Island. With such a limited number of locations, the film could easily have been stagy and theatrical – nothing more than a “filmed play.” As ever, the Archers proved to be highly fluent in cinematic language. Their film is an overwhelming visual experience, capturing a spectacular array of costumes, sculptures and sets in glorious Technicolor. Not for nothing did “Hoffmann” receive two Academy Award nominations, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Of the three, the Parisian episode tells the most tragic love story. Hoffmann (Robert Helpmann) falls for a girl named Olympia (Moira Shearer), who turns out be not a girl at all but a doll created by a sinister puppeteer named Spalanzani (Léonide Massine). In the film’s most frightening image, Olympia is torn limb from limb but remains conscious, her eyes staring out from a severed head. This scene, along with Massine’s appearance in multiple roles as three inexplicably evil men who thwart Hoffmann at every turn, lend the story a fairly tale quality – a tinge of the horrific.
The Venetian episode, in which Hoffmann pursues Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina), includes the opera’s most famous aria, “Moon of Love,” which viewers may recognize from Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.” The extended sequence set on a Greek Island that closes the film, in which Hoffmann falls in love with a girl named Antonia (Ann Ayars) who is fatally ill with consumption, never quite lives up to the magic of the first two chapters. The dynamism of the first 90 minutes is replaced by a much more reserved pace. Still, Ayars and Helpmann have good chemistry, and the music is sufficient enough to keep viewers engaged through the final stretch.
Helpmann, Shearer, Tchérin and Ayars were all average-looking actors by traditional movie standards, and in a way this helps “Hoffmann” avoid the distancing effect of classic Hollywood love stories. They were cast more for their acting chops than for their pipes; all of the songs were lip-synched. Three decades later, music video directors would employ the same technique for their work, and use many of the same tricks pioneered by the Archers, such as the cubist shot in which we see two ballet dancers moving in four different parts of the frame.
Clearly, “Hoffmann” had a powerful impact on the medium – and on specific directors as well. In a must-see interview featured on the Criterion Edition DVD (which will go out of print at the end of March 2010), filmmaker George A. Romero describes it as his favorite movie, “the movie that made me want to make movies.” In the years before videotape, he and Martin Scorsese would take turns renting out the only print of the film available in New York City. You can see the influence it had on both filmmakers – in the dark poetry of Romero’s “Dead” cycle, and in the flamboyant imagery and operatic violence of Scorsese’s “Casino.” “The Tales of Hoffmann” is one for the ages.