I wish I liked the movie The Tales of Hoffmann better. When I say I wish I liked it, I don't mean that I feel it's my duty to like it; I mean that there's so much I admire about the film that I really want it to add up to an enjoyable experience, and it just doesn't.
The admirable things about the film have been much-remarked-upon by people wiser than I am (like Martin Scorsese and George Romero in special features on the new Criterion DVD). The magnificent use of Technicolor; the revolutionary "multimedia" concept behind the combination of song, dance, stylized sets and special effects; the utterly unique look of the film; the constant flow of new and unique visual ideas in every shot. Michael Powell had a visual imagination comparable to the early Disney animated features, and Tales of Hoffmann is Powell and Pressburger's Fantasia: an attempt to exploit all the possibilities of cinema, and a celebration of cinema as a combination of all the arts that have come before it.
But unlike Fantasia, The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a single work (albeit a work that consists of three or four only semi-related stories), and there's supposed to be a story somewhere in there. And that's what keeps me from liking the movie: it's awesomely beautiful and imaginative, but emotionally it's the coldest of cold fish. The opera Offenbach and Jules Barbier wrote, or mostly wrote (Offenbach died before the premiere, and people have been arguing for 125 years over what form the opera was intended to take), is also somewhat emotionally cool, as befits a somewhat cynical fantasy which concludes that an artist is better off concentrating on art and giving up romance. But it does have its moments of warmth, and something to say about love and art and the dangers inherent of devoting oneself to art (a theme, in one way or another, of all the stories). The movie puts so much distance between itself and the story that there's never any question of emotional involvement: when Hoffmann first becomes openly emotional, in the middle section of the Kleinzach ballad, the movie cuts away from him to a ballet-pantomime with a couple of dolls on the shelf.
It is, ultimately, a movie about nothing except itself; it ironically exemplifies the self-absorbed kind of artistry that Offenbach and Barbier make fun of in the original opera. Hoffmann in the Olympia story is mocked for being someone so cut off from reality that he can't tell the difference between a woman and a robot; Powell and Pressburger, who drain all the humor out of this sequence and reduce all the characters to automatons, are more like Hoffmann than they perhaps would like to admit.
On the upside, though, the choice of Robert Rounseville to play Hoffmann -- one of the few performers in the film who does his own singing; most of the others are dubbed -- was ideal. Rounseville was a wonderful singer who went back and forth between opera and musical theatre without ever making an issue of whether he was "crossing over"; he was Stravinsky's original Tom Rakewell, Bernstein's original Candide, the Padre in the original production of Man of La Mancha, and his Enoch Snow is one of the few highlights of the movie version of Carousel.