Film 2019: The Tales of Hoffman

As December shows itself in via the side door, we come to the final two films from the boxsets I’ve been watching and reviewing these many months since Spring. For the penultimate of these, I’ve chosen the last film from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger box, their 1951 filmic adaptation of the French composer Jacques Offenbach’s opera, The Tales of Hoffman. The film is an expansion of the Red Shoes ballet in the film of the same name, to fit a near two hours length. With one exception, its cast are all dancers and opera singers, and there is not a spoken word in the entire film, save only at the very end.

I admit to being daunted about writing about a ballet film and an opera film when I have no qualifications to talk about, or even understand either form. I can recognise the quality, the beauty of what I see, but it is a beauty beyond my understanding, that I have no context for understanding. Nor have I any technical analysis I can make, save in the person of the one actress in the entire film, Pamela Brown, an archers favourite whose career was crippled by early onset arthritic pain, and who lived with Michael Powell for twenty years until her death in 1975.

I can at least outline the story. Robert Hoffman, a poet (Robert Rounseville) attends a ballet danced by Stella (Moira Shearer) who sends him a key and a note saying she loves him. The key is intercepted by Hoffman’s Salieri-esque rival, Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpman). Unaware, Hoffman heads for the Tavern during the interval, meeting his good friend and travelling companion Nicklaus (Brown) and his drinking chums. Rather than return to the ballet, the drink already going to his head, Hoffman stays and regales his friends with Tales.

These form the ballets of the film, along with Shearer’s stunning performance at te outset in the Dragonfly Ballet, dressed in a form-fitting dragonfly costume from neck to toe: my, the lady was lovely.

Shearer leads the first tale, that of Olympia, a clockwork doll with whom Hoffman falls in love without realising she is not alive. Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, a courtesan, who steals the reflection of Hoffman, and thus his soul, for her master, Dapertutto (Helpmann): dressed in a black sheath from bustline to toe, she incarnates sexuality. And singer Ann Ayars, like Rounseville one of only two performers who sing their own lines, plays the consumptive Ophelia, in love with Hoffman, whose urge to sing kills her by burning out her body.

After the final tale, the film cuts back to the Tavern, where Lindorf has brought Stella. Hoffman is drunk, and falls on his face on the table, and muttering the only three spoken words in the film: Olympia, Giulietta, Ophelia. Heartbroken, Stella leaves with Lindorf, as the closing music swells, and we see about thirty seconds of it being conducted by the actual Conductor, the reknowned Sir Thomas Beecham.

What to make of the film? It is what ballet and opera are perhaps best at being, a fantasy of heightened emotion and a complicit unrealism. In all three Tales, Hoffman falls in love, foolishly, romantically, ignoring the artificiality of the emotions to which he is prey. With both Olympia and Giuliettta, he is being openly conned, yet he is incapable of seeing that. He’s at least more mature with Ophelia, who is only twenty (being a singer not a dancer, Ayars is more substantial of figure and definitely doesn’t look twenty). There, he is trying to preserve, or rather extend her life, by getting her to agree not to sing anymore whilst ignoring the fact that singing is all Ophelia lives for.

And in all three Tales Helpmann plays the demonic figure, the villain, the sinister character. He is Coppelius, who first makes then destroys Olympia when he discovers he has been cheated out of his fee. He is Dappertutto, who seeks Hoffman’s soul. He is Dr Miracle, the ‘healer’ who seduces Opheklia into singing the death-aria. And of course he is Lindorf, who estroys the love Stella has for Hoffman, ending the film on a dark note that nevertheless feels approriate.

Let me not turn to Pamela Brown as Nicklaus, Hoffman’s staunch friend. She is, as I’ve already said, the only non-singer or -dancer in the film, and what’s more she’s playing a male part, for which she has her red hair cut short, emphasising her face with its prominent cheekbones, and wears mannish dress – a jacket that doesn’t make too much of an effort to conceal her figure, and rather baggyish pants.

Nicklaus is a very important part of the film. He plays very little active part, but he accompanies Hoffman, and is to be found in the background, invariably leading the eye away from the overt performances in front of us. Brown makes an art of standing around, usually with one hand on her waist, performing with her face. Nicklaus is the sceptic, a silent chorus commentating upon the tomfoolery that is going on, mixing amusement with exasperation. She/he’s the antipole of the film, reminding us at all stages of reality without interfering with the fantastic trust of everyone else.

So I like the film, even though it’s maybe ten minutes too long for my absolute enjoyment. Still, after eleven films from this boxset, I think it’s safe to say that the Archers’ heyday was the Forties. They were already in decline after The Red Shoes, with three increasingly unsuccessful films (one of which I’ve never seen) and whilst The Tales of Hoffman was creatively a success, despite its mixed reception, it did nothing to arrest their commercial decline. One more musical film followed, then the two war films we’ve already seen before separation.

And after this, there is one more boxset film.

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