Despondent poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) takes advantage of the intermission of a ballet to drop by a tavern, unaware that the prima ballerina (Moira Shearer) is trying to arrange a tryst with him. Fellow drinkers want to know what has put Hoffmann into such a funk, so he tells three stories of his tragic loves. In the first, Hoffmann is tricked by Spalanzani (body: Leonide Massine; voice: Grahame Clifford) and Coppelius (body: Robert Helpmann; voice: Bruce Dargavel) into falling in love with an automaton (body: Moira Shearer; voice: Dorothy Bond). In the second, he falls for the courtesan Giulietta (body: Ludmilla Tcherina; voice: Margherita Grandi), who is trying to steal his reflection for the devil Dapertutto (body: Robert Helpmann; voice: Bruce Dargavel). In the last, he visits his lover, a singer (Ann Ayars) who will die if she sings. Also visiting her is the demonic Dr. Miracle (body: Robert Helpmann; voice: Bruce Dargavel) who intends for her to die.
Another masterwork by The Archers, the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Tales of Hoffmann is the ultimate example of Powell’s “composed cinema,” where the film is put together from separately created pieces—and as they are separate, they can be the best in their specific areas. This ties into his notion of hybrid art, being that all art is one and everything can be in a film. The Tales of Hoffmann is a combination of ballet, opera, theater, poetry, architecture & design, and painting, encompassed in the tricks of a motion picture. There is no attempt to match mundane reality. This is art in pure form.
The Archers had worked in ballet before with The Red Shoes, a fabulously beautiful movie with a fantasy ballet section. That film was weighed down by the inability of some performers to excel in all areas. A dancer may not be the best at dramatic line readings. That isn’t a problem for The Tales of Hoffmann, where all of the sound was recorded separately, and the visuals were not restrained by the normal movement of time. It’s everything that was good about The Red Shoes, expanded.
And damn is it gorgeous. Perfect voices combined with exquisite dancing and surreal sets.
It’s also depressing. It’s a journey though a man’s emotional and romantic development, on how he (and thus, all men) see first surface and ideal, then more direct sexuality, and finally companionship, and none of it ends well. The music is often uplifting, but the story is heartbreak and sadness. Thematically, it’s just as downbeat, as unlike the stage opera, there is no suggestion that poetry is its own reward. Instead, the artist lies beaten and lonely, with no insight coming from his loss.
It has been suggested that the dark story is to blame for its box office failure, but that thinking came later. More likely it’s because The Tales of Hoffmann is a very unusual film. “Weird.” Neither audiences nor critics knew what to do with it in 1951. It certainly didn’t match the restrained gray films that dominated England. But times have changed and its reputation has grown. Martin Scorcese, a general supporter of The Archers and who has been instrumental in the restoration of their films, said the movie entranced him, influencing his filmmaking. George Romero goes further, saying not only did it inspire him to be a filmmaker, but specifically a horror filmmaker. Yup, this is the dawn of zombies.
If your taste in cinema runs toward current and average fair, I’d suggest working up to The Tales of Hoffmann through other Powell and Pressburger films. Perhaps start with A Matter of Life and Death, then try Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. You can’t go wrong with an Archers fest.