Event cinema may be all the rage now but Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had it mastered over 60 years ago. Why bother filming live events when you can painstakingly reconstruct them. Coming towards the end of the purple streak that saw the pair produce a number of brilliant films, The Tales of Hoffmann is about as close to pure cinema as it’s possible to get.
There’s a certain irony here given it’s an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique of the same name. Sticking relatively faithfully to the original, the film is made up of three of the poet Hoffmann’s doomed romances, top and tailed by his drunken escapades in a tavern. Relating his failures with Olympia who turns out to be an automaton, Guilietta, a courtesan who only gets close to steal his reflection, and Antonia, a woman forced to sing until she dies, Hoffmann eventually reveals they are all aspects of his one true love.
This version restored by Martin Scorsese’s company, the project overseen by his veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker, showcases Powell and Pressburger’s technical mastery. They choreograph every shot carefully with the music, the camera shifting around the stage lightly, zipping in and out as required. Hein Heckroth’s production design is vividly rich, all hand drawn backgrounds and extravagant clothing.
It’s so much more than a technical masterclass though. This is virtuoso filmmaking, mixing sound and image together rapturously. Voices swell, dancers twirl and the camera cuts and sways in time to the action. Steadily building up the rhythm over two hours, the film grows ever heavier with melancholy loneliness. When Hoffmann collapses in a drunken stupor at the end, it’s heart-breaking and inevitable.
There are limitations. It’s still a stage adaptation and it takes some time to get used to watching actors performing while someone else sings. Robert Rounseville as Hoffmann at least fulfils both duties as does Ann Ayars. All other roles are split between actor and singer. It’s a disorienting experience. The story also plays second fiddle to the wider viewing experience. The film is about mood, not content.
No successful version of The Tales of Hoffmann was ever likely to be any other way though. This is opera fantastique after all, a crazy mash up of styles and genre that develops into an almost other worldly spectacle. And spectacle is really the reason we’re all watching.
The Blu-ray edition includes an introduction by Martin Scorsese and an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker.
The Tales of Hoffmann was released on 23rd March 2015.
Directors: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Stars: Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine
Runtime: 138 minutes