The Knack To See White When It Is Black: The Tales Of Hoffman (1951)

I am constantly amazed by certain directors when each time I unpack a work of theirs for the first time I find myself captivated and moved in new ways, showing that their cinematic abilities transcend singular feats or ideas, able to appropriate various genres, stylistic choices and ideas into deeply moving and wholly encompassing films.  When I think of directors that this statement holds true for, although they are not given equal credit to Kubrick or the Welles, my mind immediately wanders to the work of Agnes Varda and Paul Thomas Anderson.  Each time I find one of their films anew, or sit down and earnestly revisit their works it is as engaging, if not more moving than the first time, and, fortunately, for the both of them there are still films in their respective oeuvres that have yet to be viewed.  I am adding the directing team of Powell and Pressburger to this list, because they could very well prove the dynamic duo that are in possession of two films in my top ten film discoveries of the last year when I compose such a list on Letterboxd in the upcoming months.  While quite familiar with them years ago, I have only started to chip away at much of their collective works in the past year, one being the absolutely perfect The Red Shoes.  However, it is not this film that moved me in a new cinematic way, but was instead A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) which helped me to understand new cinematic conventions and exactly how powerful a shift one can evoke simply by moving between color and black and white.  As such, stepping into their 1951 film The Tales of Hoffman was initially more of a checklist activity that happened to coincide with my month of musicals than an actual desire, thinking that it would not even come close to A Matter of Life and Death.  While this is true, because the former is traipsing around in top ten films of all time territory for me, The Tales of Hoffman is still an absolutely exception and realized work of art.  I found myself yelling expletives at the screen not out of disdain, but out of earnest confusion as to how such magic could be achieved and how even two directors could deliver such consistency for a two hour film.  This is the magic of the moviegoing experience so many speak of and wax poetic about in interviews and text.  This film was ahead of its time and frankly is still quite ahead of its time.  Nothing works on the visceral viewer quite like the lavish, lush landscapes of a Powell and Pressburger musical.  Nothing.

The Tales of Hoffman is a pseudo-omnibus film in that it is a collection of short narratives all centering around the literary figure of Hoffman (Robert Rounseville).  This man, a poet of sorts navigates the spaces of various tales as a poet and observer to some rather curious occurrences, the first taking place in the laboratory of scientist and engineer of sorts.  In this laboratory the scientist is noted for his ability to create automatons that replicate human movement and behavior, having particular success with the Olympia (Moira Sheerer) whose lifelike movements become a thing of longing for various persons.  Indeed, when donning a special pair of glasses the person looking at the various automatons, including Olympia come to realize that they replicate human behavior on far more than a marionette level.  The second story centers on the travels of Hoffman through Venice where he meats a sultry courtesan named Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina).  The bejeweled woman while incredibly attractive and clearly curious about Hoffman, becomes indifferent to his ways when she comes to understand him as nothing more than a trickster, emphasized by his attempts to fabricate various jewels out of colored candle wax.  The final and perhaps most evocative of the three stories centers on the relationship between Antonia Crespel (Ann Ayars) a sickly opera singer who simply wants to be with her partner who is once again Hoffman.  However, the love is made to be stifled by Antonia's father and stickler for formalities and class separation Spalanzi (Léonide Massine) thus making their relationship an impossibility.  These stories are, of course, all woven together by the narration of Hoffman who explains to those listening to, or rather attending, the ballet that the stories are all intended to represent aspects of a ballet dancer named Stella (Moira Sheerer) who is decidedly his muse.  Yet when, one of Hoffman's advisors and confidants explains that this is problematic, doubled by Stella's own refusal of his advances, Hoffman is left with nothing more to do than to sulk at a bar that fills with young patrons.

Meta.  It is a thing that I will admit to throwing around rather hap hazardously, if not outwardly ironically here on the blog, suggesting that films often take on a meta level that is, if anything, purely incidental.  In regards to The Tales of Hoffman, however, this is meta-narrative, meta-cinema and probably other forms of meta that I could not even begin to unpack.  Tales of Hoffman, is already setting itself up as an adaptation, borrowing form Jacques Offenbach's opera of the same name, however, it becomes fascinating when one considers that the story is about a group of people attending an opera, wherein Hoffman is the focus of the story, yet within the very focus of the story, it is Hoffman telling a further series of stories.  The viewer of this film is asked to watch a film about a group of people watching a play about a man telling stories.  That might be as deep a layer of metafiction as I have encountered and one would assume that such structures would be stacked in such a way as to cause the narrative to implode within itself.  Not in the world of Powell and Pressburger, however, this sort of narrative richness is their expertise and one becomes so aware of the sense of scale both in its grandness, emphasized during the Antonia sequence, when the two lovers are attempting to unite and an image of theatre seating is layered to appear as though it is celestial in composition, only to be double by a kaleidoscopic image of the scowling Spalanzi.  Yet the sense of grandiosity is not the real fascination here, as it is a thing that is often achieved to great ends within cinema.  The real curiosity her comes in the way of Powell and Pressburger devoting an equal level of attention to the most minor of spaces. Indeed, the already expansive narrative delves into the microscopic by allowing the etchings on the side of beer steins to take on their own dance number, moving into the space of art in such a simple way as to show and interconnectedness that New Age thinkers could only hope to express in their faux-intellecutal sermons.  Few films move through space in such a moving way, but even fewer do so with such exuberance.

Key Scene:  For all the real ballet going on in this film, the marionette sequence is absolutely stunning.

This film is sadly OOP and while I have been lucky enough to attain a Criterion disc copy, I would suggest finding a means with which to rent it as its price tag is steadily rising.

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