Monday, 19 September 2016

AFS Screening: Tales of Hoffman

Following the Statham love-fest of the last couple posts, now for something completely different: The last of this year's AFS screening reviews; 1951's Tales of Hoffman.

Written, produced and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Tales of Hoffman is an adaptation of the opera by Jacques Offenbach, which in turn was inspired by the stories of 19th century writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (most famous for The Nutcracker)

At the time this movie was made, Powell and Pressburger were major players in the British film industry, and their work together -- including films such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes -- has been enormously influential. Martin Scorsese is one of their biggest fans, and counts The Tales of Hoffman as one of his favourite films (he recorded a commentary track for the Criterion edition). 

The film was recently re-released on Blu ray, which probably explains while the AFS included it in this year's programme.

The film is an opera. There is no dialogue -- every word is sung. If you like opera and ballet, you'll be in good hands. If you don't, stick around. Tales of Hoffmann is one of the most purely  cinematic experiences I've had this year.

The story is centred around Hoffmann, here played by opera singer Robert Rounseville. Waiting at a tavern during the intermission of a ballet starring his love, prima ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes), Hoffman regales the other drinkers with three tales of his lost loves.

The movie consists of three vignettes inspired by Hoffmann's stories, with Hoffmann himself as the romantic lead in each.

In the first, he falls in love with the daughter (Shearer again) of a famous inventor. The daughter turns out to be an automaton, revealed in a terrifying scene where the inventor's cheated collaborator tears her limb from limb.

In the second, Hoffman is in Venice, where he falls under the literal spell of a courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina) who steals his reflection for her master, an evil magician.

In the third, Hoffmann is in love with Antonia, a beautiful soprano who is dying of consumption. Fearing that she will die if she keeps singing, her father forbids it. In the end, entrapped by the evil Dr Miracle, Antonia sings again and dies.

In each story, and the wraparound, Hoffmann's nemesis is played by Robert Helpmann. Though each role is different, he serves the same function of foiling Hoffmann's attempts at happiness.

The Tales of Hoffmann is a gorgeous movie, in every sense of the word. Though the Blu ray transfer is extremely unforgiving toward the make-up, sets and special effects, it does not detract from the power of Powell and Pressburger's film. Despite being stage-bound and being wall-to-wall music, the movie moves and is filled with weird, psychedelic images. 

But despite its worthy origins and presentation, the movie is filled with experimentation and a welcome dose of wit. Hoffmann's stories are dark and down beat, but the film never feels mired in the misery. The movie's darkness is more akin to Roald Dahl -- the wit does not blunt the violence or tragedy, but merely garnishes it. 

A one of a kind on release and even today, The Tales of Hoffmann deserves a wider audience. Find it on Blu ray and settle in. It is a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant (2015)

Eyes Without A Face (2015)

Night of the Demon

Grand Central

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