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.