Thursday, March 19, 2015

TALES OF HOFFMANN


A strange hybrid of cinema, ballet and opera -- Offenbach's musical drama(s) gets the full Powell/Pressburger treatment, and the results are mixed, to put it very very politely. The opera tells of Hoffmann, a lovestruck writer who tells three stories of Doomed Love to his drinking mates at a tavern, not realizing that his sinister rival for the affections of a dancer is also present. The stories range from comic to sinister to tragic, all brought off by Powell/Pressburger in full RED SHOES style -- The hybrid quality comes from the strange combination of arts going on – it’s a film, based on an opera, largely starring ballet dancers who lip-synch the vocals, unless they’ve got some serious dancing to do in which case dance takes precedence and the vocals play on the soundtrack anyway.

The movie is very deliberately stagy, the artifice is all right there on the surface, with clearly painted backgrounds and loud Technicolor sets and costumes (each of the three stories has a color palette based on a specific primary color, you get the idea) – all the mechanics of filmmaking and music and performance are all foregrounded and you’re expected to roll with it and enjoy, and to be fair there are moments where it works, especially in one marvelous scene where Robert Helpmann transforms pieces of molten wax, plucked from assorted candles, into jewels he fashions into a necklace for his sinister lady love, and you can see the sleight of hand happening and somehow it doesn’t matter, there’s a charm to it that is sadly lacking in way too much of the rest of the film, especially during the interminable Olympia section involving a mechanical dancing doll where the cuteness is laid on with a shovel, the charm gets too heavy-handed to be delightful (Powell/Pressburger do sinister better than whimsy). 

The film's cast is a curiosity too. Ballet stars Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine and Moira Shearer, all holdovers from Powell/Pressburger's THE RED SHOES, manage to do some fine work. Helpmann, as the film’s Evil Genius in all of the stories, manages some fine moments of decadent depravity. He’s able to live in that artificial world and make it all work somehow in ways that the film’s Hoffmann, one Robert Rounseville, just can’t manage. Rounseville is a fine singer with the voice of an angel (he was the original Candide in the Bernstein musical), but the poor guy just can’t act onscreen to save his life. Saddled with the Young Romantic Hero roles in the three stories, he sings a lot about a “fire” and “passion” and “desire” but his physical performance is stiff and uncomfortable – he looks frankly terrified for way too much of the film.

Powell/Pressburger managed all of this to much better effect in the famed 20 minute Red Shoes ballet in, of course, THE RED SHOES and I can’t help feeling ultimately that the two hour plus running time of TALES OF HOFFMANN feels like too much of a pretty good thing that was done better elsewhere. 

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