The Tales of Hoffmann: A Visual Feast with Narrative Shortcomings (Criterion Blu-ray)
In 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger joined together to create what would no doubt become their greatest collaboration, "The Red Shoes," a stunning tale of a ballerina torn between her love for a young man and her passion for dancing. The two had worked together before, and would work together several more times after, with one of those projects being an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera "The Tales of Hoffman" in 1951. Their passion for the arts was plain to see in "The Red Shoes," especially with its incredible titular sequence, but to do an entire opera was not only remarkably ambitious, it was a rather big gamble as well. Whatever the result, given their reputation, it was sure to be a fascinating experience.
The opera opens as Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) is watching a ballet performance by Stella (Moira Shearer). She sends him a note asking him to meet her, but the note is intercepted by his rival, Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann). Afterward, Hoffmann goes to a tavern where he over-indulges on drink and tells three tales of women he's fallen in love with: an automaton named Olympia, a courtesan named Giulietta, and a young woman with a passion for singing named Antonia. Through these, we learn of his rather tragic history of doomed relationships.
When it comes to style, Powell & Pressburger were hardly ones to hold back, as was clearly shown in their masterpiece "The Red Shoes." "The Tales of Hoffmann" ends up being no different, giving the viewer a stunning visual feast of gorgeous costumes, sets, cinematography, and direction. Described as a "phantasmagoric marriage of cinema and opera," it presents Offenbach's work in the most opulent manner possible, constantly displaying their love of the arts once more as these tales of romance unfold.
It certainly can't be faulted from a visual standpoint, but that's what makes it all the more disappointing to have to say that it quickly comes to some pretty major faults from a narrative standpoint. The three tales that we are presented are all curiously flaccid, drawing out stories that have very little substance in the first place, and all of which come across as being a bit hollow. As mentioned, they are quite the feast for the eyes, but as they go on, meandering here and there, they do begin to try your patience after a while.
It's difficult to fully blame Powell & Pressburger for this, though one would think that they could have easily chosen a better opera to bring to the screen. Perhaps it's a performance that simply works a lot better on the stage, and they thought that they could work some magic to turn it into an equally dazzling cinematic experience. While that notion does work in part, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot that they could do in regards to its narrative shortcomings, ultimately resulting in a beautiful, but rather languid production that remains one of the prolific duo's more obscure works.
"The Tales of Hoffman" is presented in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration (undertaken by The Film Foundation, the BFI National Archive, and Studiocanal) in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film looks absolutely splendid from start to finish, highlighting its magnificent costumes, sets, and cinematography. Likewise, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is stunning, giving you all of the singing and orchestrations in excellent quality. As usual, the amazing folks at Criterion (et al.) have simply done an amazing job on this release.
Audio commentary from 1992 by filmmaker Martin Scorsese and critic Bruce Eder, newly updated by Eder
Interview with filmmaker George A. Romero from 2005 (18 Minutes)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1956), a short musical film based on the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe story and directed by Michael Powell (14 Minutes)
Collection of production designer Hein Heckroth’s design sketches and paintings
Gallery of production and publicity photographs
The Blu-ray comes with a fascinating collection of special features, including commentary by the great Martin Scorsese, a reminiscence with horror maestro George A. Romero, and numerous design & production photographs, all of which provide an intriguing look into the film's making and influence.
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's "The Tales of Hoffman" boasts extraordinary visuals in terms of its costumes, sets, and cinematography, but sadly falls short when it comes to its narrative, which features three curiously insubstantial tales that don't present much for the audience to engage with. The great duo's talent is certainly on full display, but in the end, the opera itself ultimately drags the production down, resulting in an unfortunate misfire.
Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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