[Film Review] The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

The Tales of Hoffmann poster

Title: The Tales of Hoffmann
Year: 1951
Country: UK
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Musical, Music
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger
Dennis Arundell
Jules Barbier
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Music: Jacques Offenbach
Robert Rounseville
Moira Shearer
Ludmilla Tchérina
Ann Ayars
Robert Helpmann
Pamela Brown
Léonide Massine
Frederick Ashton
Mogens Wieth
Rating: 5.1/10

The Tales of Hoffmann 1951

This is a 4K restoration of directors-duo Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s eponymous opera about German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann (Rounseville), attends a ballet performance by a prima donna ballerina Stella (Shearer), who intends to meet Hoffmann after the show, but the note is intercepted by his nemesis Councillor Lindorf (Helpmann), which leads Hoffmann to get intoxicated in a tavern and triggers his nostalgic recounts of three stories from his past lovers, Olympia (Shearer), Giulietta (Tchérina) and Antonia (Ayars), respectively these three operettas happen in Paris, Venice and an unknown Greek island.

This is an excellent restoration to authentically register the movie’s original theatrical opulence for opera diehards to luxuriate in its live-emulating performances (although only tenor Rounseville and soprano Ayars can sing in their own voices, while other danseurs and danseuses have to all be dubbed in this case), it is an innovate endeavor to couple two different art media together at that time, when opera meets motion pictures, all the renditions can be rehearsed and redone to a fabricated perfection thanks to the snappy editing and the magic of montage, although sometimes Shearer is obviously not lip-syncing to the lyrics while ravishingly gyrating as the mechanical doll Olympia in the first story. Mainly as a ballet piece, the story of Olympia also consummately incorporates the utilization of puppetry into its harlequin mise en scène.

Unfortunately, the film gradually slumps to be enervating in the second story of Giulietta, although Tchérina strikes a fierce appearance as an exotic courtesan who makes a deal with an evil magician (Helpmann) to steal Hoffmann’s reflection, but the fantasy ingredients never transpire to be an impressive cinematic maneuver  itself apart from some rudimentary magic tricks to provoke eye-rolling for finicky viewers. What’s more frustrating is that the opera pieces are far from supremacy, the narrative descends into hollowness and the melody doesn’t effectively to our ear’s rescue.

Ultimately, the third story of Antonia comes to the nadir as it all relies on the singing, a soprano suffers from consumption and is forbidden to sing, but she is persuaded by an devilish doctor (Helpmann again) to belt out a dirge for herself. Strangely enough, all the way through, the film can only be occasionally captivating but uniformly no emotional vibrations are teased out, it seems that all its artsy charms are losing its mojo along its running time.

This is the second Powell-Pressburger collaboration I’ve watched, as much as I adore BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is subjected with a troubled transmutation from opera to the media of cinema, flashily dazzling but without a sounding frisson to win over audience who is not afraid to shrug off the high-art hypocrisy and spill one’s true feelings about it.


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