The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

Article #1090 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-9-2004
Posting Date: 8-6-2004
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Featuring Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Anne Ayars

A poet relates to the guests at an inn the tales of his three great loves.

It’s opera again, folks, and I didn’t expect another one to pop up so soon, but here we are. As I mentioned during my review of THE MEDIUM, I’m not an opera buff and I find the form a little alien. As for my comments that the vocal phrasing in opera was the equivalent of listening to your native tongue in a bizarre dialect, all I can add to that is that my wife sat down and watched about ten minutes of this movie with me, and then asked what language it was in. This opera is, like THE MEDIUM, in English.

Fortunately, it’s directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the same team that gave us A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, and the visual sense that pervaded and enhanced that movie are in full sway here as well. This movie is simply stunning on a visual level, and it uses color in such a memorable, daring and evocative way that it makes most color movies look like they’re in black and white. It’s by no means merely a photographed opera; it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, taking full advantage of the flexibility that marks one of the advantages that films have over live productions. I heartily recommend the movie to anyone interested in brilliant direction, the works of Powell and/or Pressburger, and anyone interested in opera.

However, it is opera, and as such, there came a point for me where the dazzling visuals couldn’t quite overcome my exhaustion at trying to figure out what the characters were warbling, and my attention began to stray quite badly during the second tale. Fortunately, the last tale turned out to be the easist of the three to understand in terms of hearing what the characters were saying, and it drew my interest back in long enough for me to truly appreciate the rest of the movie, including the ironic and sad denoument of the framing story. Incidentally, all three of the stories are fantastically themed; the first has Hoffmann falling in love with a dancing marionette whom he watches through a pair of magic spectacles. The second involves a woman who is under the spell of a magician who steals the mirror reflections of his victims. The third is about a woman who labors under a curse that she will die if she should sing (considering that they do nothing but sing during an opera, how long do you think she will last?).


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