Certain varietals of grandly gestured cinema inspire mad, inexplicable devotion among cinephiles: The films of Welles, Ophüls, Sirk, Leone, Scorsese, and Wong, for example, tend to magnetize our nerve endings more than our frontal lobes, and such infatuations often last a lifetime. Of course Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger belong on the list; it’s not a question of whether you’re in love with a Powell/Pressburger film, but which one.
Cultists stake their ground all over the duo’s peculiarly mysterious and rhapsodic filmography, but the team was never as grand or wildly sensual as in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), in a new 4K restoration at Film Forum. A hellzapoppin’ filmization of the Offenbach opera, with stops pulled out by P&P’s resident design team and choreography by Brit-ballet arch-pope Frederick Ashton, the movie was as intensely expressionistic as any film since Caligari, and at the same time a nova of springtime élan. The exultant brio that always thrived in the pair’s films was here finally and completely cut loose from reality, allowed to go apeshit in a mega-terrarium of living puppet people, greasepaint, distorted scale, dream spaces, toychest clutter, unstoppered swoonings, and free-for-all quasi-antique design — think Randolph Caldecott plus Georges Méliès plus Yves Tanguy, plus a heady dose of Jack Smith make-believe.
Offenbach’s opus, concocted by librettist Jules Barbier from three E.T.A. Hoffmann fables, places Hoffmann himself (American tenor Robert Rounseville, in the film) at the center, as he recounts to a tavernful of acolytes three tragic tales of love — doomed romances with a beautiful automaton (Moira Shearer), the consumptive daughter of an overbearing composer (Ann Ayars), and a soul-stealing courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina). (Everyone but Rounseville and Ayars is dubbed by someone else.) Performed opera and ballet do not ordinarily mix well with movies — I am not a maven for either form, live or filmed — but Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic sense never wavers, and their Hoffmann always feels organically constructed out of gazes and sighs, not merely something performed in front of cameras.
The film is, in fact, so committed to its netherworld that there’s not even breathing room for camp — even if virtually every set and image is making explicit sport of something, be it nineteenth-century social norms, melodramatic conventions, or ballet itself. The Brechtian distance that the classical forms muster today is part of the film’s project — P&P’s passion is invested not in the characters but in the film as objet d’art, something crafted to be played with, and the childlike joy of it is infectious. (A better tonic for a brutal winter is hard to imagine. Bring wine and truffles.) Now’s the time to succumb, as this new print, with refreshed Technicolor and clocking in at 133 minutes, has several scenes restored and is longer than any version seen in the States before, including the current Criterion edition.