The Tales of Hoffman

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #317: Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann.


This is an­oth­er Criterion film that didn’t do so much for me. I’m not too keen on mu­si­cals and there are some very large hur­dles to sur­mount in turn­ing a mu­si­cal in­to a mu­si­cal on film. The Tales of Hoffmann is an opera, so the hur­dles are even high­er. Powell and Pressburger did a mar­vel­lous job adapt­ing a French Opera to an English li­bret­to and mak­ing it ap­peal­ing to watch through a lens and on a screen in­stead of a stage. What I didn’t like was the opera it­self. Bored the shit out of me. If you re­al­ly care a plot syn­op­sis is here.

So, I’m go­ing to talk about pro­duc­tion val­ues, which is what tru­ly sets this film apart. I’ll be­gin with the most in­con­sis­tent part, the cam­era work. There is quite a bit of trick pho­tog­ra­phy: forced per­spec­tive stair­cas­es and lily­pads, dou­ble ex­po­sures, trick dis­solves, trompe l’oeil set pieces that be­come three di­men­sion­al with a slight shift of the cam­era. It is pret­ty mag­i­cal. Unfortunately, dur­ing the epic dance se­quences, the cam­era tends to sit at a medi­um long shot for ex­tend­ed pe­ri­ods of time, and even though there is plen­ty of move­ment on-screen, the pace drags. It has to be ridicu­lous­ly hard to ed­it a mu­si­cal. The sets were all fan­tas­tic, and though still ob­vi­ous­ly sets, fit well with the tech­ni­col­or dream­coats every­one was dressed in. The sound­stage must have been hu­mon­gous, be­cause rarely do you see a ceil­ing or even sense one in the gen­er­al vicin­i­ty.

talesofhoffman51.jpgTo me, there is one main as­pect about a mu­si­cal that acts as both strength and weak­ness. The cam­era has the abil­i­ty to show the ac­tion from a va­ri­ety of per­spec­tives, es­pe­cial­ly in ways that a the­ater-go­er could nev­er ex­pect to see, yet at the same time, try­ing to hold on to the the­ater-go­ing ex­pe­ri­ence while mak­ing a film is hurt by this ten­den­cy. Instead of re­main­ing sta­tion­ary and hav­ing the ac­tion move around the eye of the view­er, the view­er is moved around the ac­tion, a very unthe­ater­like ex­pe­ri­ence. This dis­con­ti­nu­ity [and the fact that most mu­si­cal film drags ass like I used to in cross-coun­try] is prob­a­bly the biggest rea­son I can’t get my head around films like these. If you’re a fan of huge mu­si­cals though, you’ll prob­a­bly like this film.

Criterion Essay by Ian Christie
The li­bret­to of the ac­tu­al opera [in French]
Tons of in­fo at the Powell and Pressburger pages.