The Tales of Hoffmann
The Tales of Hoffmann, musical, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
What do George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, and Taxi
Driver’s Martin Scorsese have in common? They were both obsessed early in their careers with the movie The Tales of Hoffmann, the 1951 reinterpretation of Offenbach’s opera, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team responsible for the twisted classic ballet film The Red Shoes. What may have attracted Romero and Scorsese to The Tales of Hoffmann, newly restored in all its garish Technicolor glory, was the decision on the part of the directors to cast ballet dancers in almost all the singing roles.
To call this the first lip-syncing music video (on film) is to do an injustice to the radical idea that dancers would be more fully able than singers to inhabit the characters in an opera. With silent-movie-style acting, an edited Offenbach score, and sets that flow like a dance — including a series of curtains opening onto dreamlike spaces, the result is a mind-blower, as over-the-top and visually bizarre as movies come. The film achieves what opera often claims to be — the synthesis of music, theater, and dance. But weirder.
Opera fans will know the story — the recounting by the poet Hoffmann (played by tenor Robert Rounseville) to his drinking buddies of the three lost loves of his life: Olympia, a mechanical doll (Moira Shearer, the legendary star of The Red Shoes); Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan (the alluring ballerina Ludmilla Tchérina); and Antonia, an opera singer dying of consumption on a Greek island (soprano Ann Ayars). Each romance is presented as a separate act, with character names and photos displayed on-screen before each section like in a theater program.
Along with a cast of drinking chorus men, waltzing humanlike marionettes, and Italian orgy participants are Russian choreographer and ballet dancer Léonide Massine and British choreographer Frederick Ashton taking on dancing duties and laying down a number of creepy character roles with relish. Perhaps the most striking performance is that of Australian dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann, Margot Fonteyn’s onstage partner. Helpmann plays multiple villains in the movie, and his oddlooking face and huge eyes create, in close-ups, an unsettling impression that no amount of makeup could produce.
The Tales of Hoffmann offers none of the musical purity of a Metropolitan Opera production nor are the dancing and acting particularly first-rate. But the film, reportedly produced in 17 days, offers something different: a kind of wild creativity that never seems to make it to the screen anymore. Think Night of the Living Dead meets The Phantom of the Opera, with Salvador Dalí as art director and Nijinsky as choreographer. The Tales of Hoffmann deserves its own cult following.
What’s up, Tiger Lily? Moira Shearer