In 1951, three years after the success of their ballet tragedy ‘The Red Shoes’, filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at last had the chance to realise Powell’s lifelong dream of creating an entirely ‘composed’ film. Their goal was to blend music, art, design, movement and every cinematic trick at their disposal. The basis would be French composer Jacques Offenbach’s final, uncompleted 1870s opera.
It’s a fantastical tale of jealousy and nostalgia as Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), believing himself spurned by the object of his desire (Moira Shearer), recounts to the occupants of a theatre bar three tales of love and loss. One of the most visually sumptuous films ever shot, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ is resplendent in primary colours – one for each of the three stories – and crammed with the kind of visual ellipses, dissolves, painterly backdrops and sly visual tricks that were Powell’s stock-in-trade.
It’s a more self-consciously artful film than its predecessor, an admirable spectacle rather than an entrancing human story. But as a work of pure, imaginative cinema, it comes close to genius.