The Tales of Hoffmann

A pinnacle of Technicolor expressionism, The Tales of Hoffmann is one of history’s strangest, most sumptuous somethings you don’t see every day. The PR for this restoration has been framed to stoke film-buff curiosity about how a 1951 movie based on an 1881 opera could inspire Cecil B. DeMille, George Romero, and Martin Scorsese alike. There definitely is the sense that without Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s flamboyantly balletic interpretation of Jacques Offenbach’s music, it might never have occurred to any of us that movies could be like this. Hoffmann is a poet who has the hots for a dancer. He goes to a beer hall and tells drunken woeful stories about lovers past. These include an automaton ballerina, a soul-sucking courtesan, and a consumptive opera singer. And in each of his amorous escapades, the poet encounters a different version of the same rival, logically his rival for the dancer’s affections too. It all transpires, unhurriedly, within a lushly appointed stage-arena of fabrics, painted backdrops, and wide watchful eyes. The filmmakers’ revelry in theatrical artifice seems equally meticulous and indulgent, with lots of art-for-art’s-sake ecstasies bubbling up through in the lava flow of febrile romanticism. A witty end-credits curtain call makes clear that each role is a dual performance — actor and singer, body and voice — and leaves us drained and dazzled with rare certitude: So that’s how on-screen opera should be done.