[20 October 2009]
At the conclusion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburgers’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), the uncredited conductor and inspiration for the filmed version of Jacques Offenbach’s celebrated and unfinished opera, Les contes d’Hoffmann, the redoubtable Sir Thomas Beecham, closes a beautifully bound conducting copy of the score and then stamps it “Made in England”. The gesture speaks volumes. A polyglot affair, the English film has as its subject a French opera based on three short stories by the German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffmann.
I’m not going to pretend that such a visually opulent film could only have been made in England, nor am I going to suggest that in the middle of the 20th century it was the British that understood how best to preserve the high art of the previous century. Rather, I’m suggesting that Powell and Pressburger (who happened to live and work in England) were the only filmmaking pair who could possibly have translated Offenbach’s radiant but incomplete vision into a filmic masterpiece that completely transcended the rather bland category of filmed opera to become something wholly unexpected, incapable of reproduction, and worthy of consideration not for what it contributes to our understanding of opera but rather for the manner in which it transmutes opera into another kind of experience altogether.
After an extended prologue, during which we are introduced to Hoffmann’s latest lover, the dancer Stella (Moira Shearer—the fabulous lead from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes), and hear Hoffmann (played and sung by Robert Rounseville) sing about the hapless character Kleinzach (Frederick Ashton—also the choreographer for the film), the opera continues with three acts: each based on a Hoffmann story and each involving a different lover from Hoffmann’s past.
Powell and Pressburger, supported by production designer Hein Heckroth, lavished attention on the particular details of each of the three acts, impressing upon them an individual visual splendor that stands in perfect counterpoise to the gorgeous singing. Indeed the majority of the cast consists of dancers, not singers. The actors lip-sync along with the soundtrack produced by the professional opera singers (the exceptions here are Robert Rounseville, as mentioned, and Ann Ayars who sings and portrays Antonia in the third act).
Act 1 focuses on Olympia (portrayed again by Moira Shearer and sung by Dorothy Bond). Olympia is ostensibly the daughter of the charismatic and frenetic Spalanzani (remarkably portrayed by the brilliant Leonide Massine and sung by Grahame Clifford) and after putting on a pair of special glasses prepared by Coppelius (Robert Helpmann, as always, plays the main villain who is here sung by Bruce Dargavel), Hoffmann falls for the beautiful girl instantly.
Of course, we realize (as Hoffmann cannot) that Olympia is a doll created jointly by Spalanzani and Coppelius. The main set-piece of the act is Olympia’s virtuosic aria/ballet during which she repeatedly winds down before the high notes and has to be wound up again before she continues. Shearer handles the choreography brilliantly and her delicate, pale skin makes her appear to be every bit the porcelain doll. Hoffmann is appropriately enchanted and fails to notice any irregularities—that is, until Coppelius busts the doll to pieces and Hoffmann’s glasses break to reveal his love was but an automaton.
Act II centers on the temptress Giulietta (portrayed by the bewitching Ludmilla Tchérina and sung marvelously by Margherita Grandi). Giulietta is in the employ of Dapertutto (again Helpmann and sung by Dargavel) who goads her into seducing men so that they give up their reflections and thus their souls—a fate that has already befallen Schlemil (Massine, sung by Owen Brannigan). Grandi sings the enchanting Barcarolle (one of the most famous pieces from the opera but one that Offenbach actually composed for another work) as we watch Tchérina’s Giulietta and Dapertutto enter Venice on a gondola.
Image courtesy of Criterion Collection
Powell and Pressburger have Giulietta sing the Barcarolle as a duet with her reflection—thus presaging the possibility of a radical rupture between one’s body and one’s reflection. More clever film tricks appear after Giulietta succeeds through her longing glances (wonderfully framed here) and alluring movements in seducing Hoffmann and he indeed loses his reflection. Much of the remainder of the scene unfolds before a wall-length mirror so that while we see the backs of both Hoffmann and Giulietta, only the seductress’s reflection appears dancing alone in the mirror, taunting a conquest that seems not to be there.
Although modern scholars believe that the Giulietta act was meant to be the final act (it certainly is the most dramatic), this more traditional ordering strikes me as appropriate here. The salacious sexuality of the Giulietta story nicely separates the naïve innocence of the Olympia story and the more mature, bittersweet heartbreak of the Antonia story. In essence, the film charts the young man’s sexual maturation—moving from an ultimately unattainable love object, through a fascination with the pleasures of the flesh, to a love based on human warmth (even if it is ultimately fated not to be).
The final act turns to Antonia (played and sung by Ann Ayars), a talented soprano who, owing to some ill-defined medical condition, must avoid singing or else she will die, as did her soprano mother before her. Hoffmann discovers her ailment and tries to keep her from singing but the villain of the act, Dr. Miracle (Helpmann and Dargavel), conjures the voice of Antonia’s dead mother and the act ends with a trio during which Antonia sings herself to death.
This film is a monument to what could be done with Technicolor. Each act has its own tone: Olympia’s act is yellow and white as befits the innocence of the attraction and the garish quality of what is ultimately a toy; Giulietta’s act features red and black, a combination of the lascivious and the demonic; finally, Antonia’s act is replete with the blue of the Grecian sea and the grays of the interiors, suited both to the calmer nature of Hoffmann’s love for her and the ashen quality of her life without her mother and without her career. Every scene sparkles, saturated with visual display and sensuous allure. This is perhaps the only filmed opera that one could view with the sound turned off and the viewer would still come away mesmerized.
This is probably a suitable place to mention something very important concerning this and several other reviews that I have submitted to PopMatters recently (including Le jour se lève, Mayerling, The 39 Steps, Throne of Blood, and Gervaise). Although I have reviewed them (and indeed they are available for purchase) as separate films, they are also packaged as Volume IV of Janus Films Presents: Essential Art House and they were all restored through Criterion Collection. However, because they are sold without the extra features and essays generally supplied by Criterion Collection, they are wonderfully affordable (each film costs under $20 separately and under $100 for the set of six).
Three of these films (Le jour se lève, Gervaise and Mayerling) are making their DVD debuts. As a long time fan of Le jour and Mayerling, I have always been forced to view these films in awful reproductions on VHS until now. The experience was like looking through the images in order to imagine the original splendor. No longer is that necessary. Mayerling in particular struck me as not just restored but resurrected. Even The 39 Steps looks remarkably better than I ever remember seeing it.
These are films for true film lovers. Granted, you won’t receive the miniature course in film school that one generally gets with Criterion Collection special editions, but you get the benefit of their restoration team and believe me, that is getting quite a lot.