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.