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Saturday, April 11, 2015
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | The Tales of Hoffmann
abandoning life for art
by Douglas Messerli
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, and Dennis Arundell (screenplay, based on the opera by Jacques Offenbach, with a libretto by Jules Barbier, which, in turn was based on stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (directors) The Tales of Hoffmann / 1951
If Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes and Powell’s Peeping Tom (of which I write above) are all more successful works of cinema, The Tales of Hoffmann, an opera-ballet based on the Offenbach opera, is perhaps the work most suitable to their temperaments. In this work, given the transformation of Hoffmann’s Stella from an opera singer to a ballerina and the balletic-inspired performance of the Olympia section (both figures performed by The Red Shoes dancer Moira Shearer), Powell and Pressburger could move almost entirely away from the confines of realism, creating a fantasy completely given over to the theatrical in the name of art.
At times it appears that Technicolor was invented with Powell’s and Pressburger’s sensibilities in mind. Almost all of their works in color use the brightly saturated reds, yellows, greens, and blues as if they were as abstract colorists instead of storytellers. And the looseness of Offenbach’s tripartite tale makes it possible for the directors to pretty much abandon plot.
Yet as silly as all of this may seem, there’s a definite method in all the filmmakers’ mad commitment to imagery and scenarios that are so obviously “over the top.” And despite the utterly kitsch expressions of art, the way in which Powell and Pressburger have given themselves up to the artificiality of work they have created is so fascinating and spectacular that any critical judgment seems absolutely pointless. Good art or bad art is quite irrelevant when witnessing an artifact created only to be goggled over. To be truly “kitsch” it would to pretend to be something it was not. And as for camp, neither the directors nor the performers (except for the remnant of the Olympia doll) ever winks. If their utter seriousness is, at times, fairly comic, so is that part of the film’s charm.
Each of the humans of this work, meanwhile, attempts to become a work of art. If the original opera might seemed to be a work in which the hero devoted his life to the discovery of love, here he and all the others seem hell-bent on giving up their breathing, sentient selves to become vessels or creators of art, soon after to be destroyed or to destroy others in the act. In short, the central human figures of this work are perfectly willing to hand over their souls to the devil-art in order to continue to dance, write, and sing.
The ballerina Stella ends up holding the arm of the satanic Lindorf; Giulietta has already given her soul (and body) over to Dapertutto before Hoffmann falls in love; Antonia, choses to pursue her singing rather than protect her health; and Hoffmann, by film’s end, having finished the telling of his tales, has drunk himself in oblivion. Only Hoffmann’s dear companion Nicklaus (played by Pamela Brown) seems to stand apart from the others, attempting to warn his friend as Hoffmann clumsily stomps through life; the directors and writers obviously felt that they had to heavily abridge the role of this figure representing such a faithful and enduring love so that his friendship has utterly no effect.
The film ends with yet another flourish of its total artificiality, showing Sir Thomas Beecham, in tails, baton erect, conducting the work’s final chords, before closing his score, upon which the cinematographers quickly stamp a golden seal declaring their “product” to be “made in England.”
Los Angeles, April 11, 2015