Harsh Texture

The Tales of Hoffmann

A poet recounts three tales of lost love

All of The Red Shoes seemed to build to the ballet sequence at its center. It arrived with force of a freight train and seem to shatter the staid reality of its narrative driving right into pure impressionistic filmmaking. It was a masterful sequence, one that the Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) seemed to be building toward throughout their careers. You can’t fault them for trying to stretch such a sequence into a full feature.

Tales of Hoffman is even billed as a reunion of the Red Shoes principals, especially Moira Shearer. Described by Powell as a pure natural, Shearer nevertheless resented her acting work, feeling it hurt her reputation as a serious ballerina. She only acted in seven films over her entire career and three of which were collaborations with Powell (including Peeping Tom).

Though sung entirely in English, much of the lyrics were almost entirely indecipherable to me. While the music was incessant, very little of it amounted to “songs” or “melodies” or even “choruses”. You won’t walk out of the theater humming bars to yourself. Fortunately the acting is fairly broad and it's easy enough to follow the motivations of the various characters even without clear exposition.

It may be that my ears are not sensitive to the mellifluous bombast of opera, they aren’t. But Hoffman still functions as an Archers feature. While Hoffman is not like their typical protagonists--he’s brash and willing to follow his heart unlike the others who defer toward fulfilling the roles society places on them. He still suffers. The thread running through each of his three tales is that while Hoffman is willing to sacrifice his life for the objects of his desire, they all do not hold him in similar regard. While the moral of the story is supposed to be how such failures and adversity enrich Hoffman’s poetry, since this is an Archers film what registers the strongest is the residual melancholy.

Well not only. The final scene of the film after giving the opera’s conductor a few minutes to conclude the music reveals that Tales of Hoffman was as much a technical exercise as anything. And if the film excels in any area its the technical aspects. The physics of opera are embraced to the fullest and the tone shifts from staged settings to freefrom realities spun from pure cinema. The wordless, breathless sequence that visually links all of Robert Helpmann’s characters into a singular entity of Hoffman’s adversity is a stunner and worth the whole of the running time. Until that conductor appears at the close we spend no time in the corporeal world.

Published: Feb. 18, 2018, 1:07 p.m.
Updated: Feb. 18, 2018, 1:07 p.m.