The Tales of Hoffmann

The Tales of Hoffmann

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Here’s a curious little item: a larger than life Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film that isn’t generally lumped in with their critically lauded efforts (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but has a certain devoted cult following. As always, the set design and photography is vivid and colorful, with the restless camerawork grabbing the audience by the head and deliberately pointing it toward whatever Powell and Pressburger wanted them to see. You’re always aware of the image, the deliberate cutting from one frame to another to make a point, and the use of splashy color and big, theatrical, artfully-directed sets. You know you’re watching a movie, and if you profess to love cinema as much as, say, Martin Scorsese, The Tales of Hoffmann is a trip to movie heaven. But Powell and Pressburger have a way of wallowing in the surface indulgences of cinema without insight into the soul. This adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera-ballet about the poet Hoffmann (Robert Helpmann) fantasizing about three women he loves never allows one into the foolishness or mania of romantic love. As a performer, Helpmann is as closed off as Ryan O’Neil in Barry Lyndon, a dumb cipher walking through beautiful pictures created by masters of cinema who aren’t masters of humanity. But if Hoffmann fails as an emotional journey, it is sensational as a music video. The poet wanders into a world where his lover is a mechanical performing doll, surrounded by a chorus of dancers on strings. The second tale involves his trip into a Venetian orgy, where his lover is a siren enchanted by jewels and magicians. (There’s a stunning sequence where his lady carelessly walks across mounds of dead bodies that makes a strong case for Hoffmann as a horror film about brainwashed victims, one of the many reasons Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero is part of the film’s strong cult audience.) The third, and slowest, segment involves Hoffmann’s attempt to woo a beautifully suffering maiden dying from consumption, where Powell and Pressburger seem more amazed by the allure of the wind blowing through the window curtains than showing genuine heartache. Movie critics often find themselves ostracized from movie clubs for their so-called blind spots, feeling indifference toward the masters. The other day, I seethed at a friend’s muttering that Hitchcock was the most overrated filmmaker of all time. But my blind spot is Powell and Pressburger and their vapid manipulations of cinematic time and space. Hoffmann looks magnificent, but it’s ultimately just eye candy for aesthetes.

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DVD
Distributor
Lopert Pictures
Runtime
127 min
Rating
NR
Year
1951
Director
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenwriter
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cast
Norma Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Robert Rounseville, Ludmiha Tcherina, Pamela Brown