Jan 7, 2008

Tales of Hoffman

I think I saw this in my younger days, maybe back in the late 50s or early 60s. I watched the Criterion DVD, a Christmas present from some friends, yesterday. I understand that the second and third act have been switched around in the film, and that the prologue and the epilogue have been slightly altered. The epilogue originally ends with the muse saying that now Hoffman can devote himself wholly to her.

The soundtrack was recorded by opera singers, and then the film was shot using actors and dancers who lip-synced the words. A few of the actors, such as the one who played Hoffman, were also singers.

The prologue shows Hoffman watching a ballet/opera, and immediately sets up the relationship between Hoffman and villain of the piece. The villain intercepts a note sent by the ballerina (Moira Shearer) to Hoffman. Hoffman, during intermission, enters a tavern, and tells the students three stories.

Act I centers on Olympia, danced by Moira Shearer and sung by Dorothy Bond. Moira Shearer is a doll. In this act she is quite literally a doll. Hoffman is given a pair of spectacles that enable him to see her as alive. His nemesis interferes, and she is torn apart in a comic fight. We see her leg kicking from a curtain, and her head on the floor.

Act II is the story of Giulietta. In Offenbach’s staging it should be act III, but I understand the acts are frequently switched because the story of Antonia makes for a more dramatic conclusion. Giulietta is set in Venice, and like all things Italian is dark, moody, and dangerous. Giulietta is danced and performed by Ludmilla and sung by Margherita Grandi. Giulietta is a temptress who persuades Hoffman to give up his soul.

A notable image in this act is Giulietta’s appearance as she walks across a heap of what might be either statues or corpses. The image conveys brilliantly the idea that Giulietta consumes and discards her lovers.

Act III is the story of Antonia. Antonia is a young singer who is dying of consumption, or tuberculosis. This calls for a bit of a digression. In most movies, or even operas, such as La Traviata or La Boheme, the actor/actress playing the consumptive is usually a little too fleshy, a little too healthy to be someone who is dying of TB. Also, the actor or actress usually just gives a dainty little cough, and then dies. Garbo does this in Camille, and I think it’s a pretty general convention. The portrait of the sufferings of a person dying of TB is quite different though. For example, the death of St. Therese of Lisieux. For what it matters, the best portrayal of death by TB that I can recall is Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday in Tombstone.

So, leaving aside any discussion of Anne Ayars weight, how was this act? On a superficial level you could say that it is an attack on the medical profession, in the person of Dr. Miracle. On a deeper level it represents the choice of Achilles, glory vs. long life and being forgotten. Antonia, lured on by Dr. Miracle chooses the glory of art over the long life that will come, if she suppresses her artistry.

In the epilogue Hoffman loses the girl, Stella, to his evil nemesis. In the original opera he is convinced to render everything to his art, to poetry. Shaw, either in his preface to Man and Superman or in the material appended to it, comments that an artist, such as George Sand, consumes lovers and other experiences in order to use them as source material for art. Shaw’s opinion may have its source in Schopenhauer’s views on art and the will. There may be a reflection of this view in the original ending as well.

The ending in the movie is far bleaker than in the original opera. Hoffman loses the girl, and passes out in a drunken stupor.