The Main Attraction
Chris Wisniewski on Lola Montes
In the past few years, over five decades after his death, there has been a surge of interest in Max Ophuls. Despite the continued unavailability of his Hollywood films (including, most frustratingly, Letter from an Unknown Woman), three of his greatest movies (La Ronde, La Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de…) were released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, and the theatrical restoration of his infamous, magnificent final film, Lola Montes, was hot on their heels. It is tempting to try to make something of this reigniting of the flame for Ophuls. Like Kenji Mizoguchi—the great Japanese director whose own oeuvre has also recently become more available on DVD, and one of only a handful of directors worthy of a comparison to Ophuls—his is a cinema of elegant, precise camera movement, where tracking shots reveal and negotiate complex chronologies and social hierarchies, particularly as they relate to questions of gender and femininity.
For those seeking to answer the question, "Why now?," Ophuls's preoccupation with woman, as subject and social category, provides the most obvious talking point: to a culture that has had to engage in a national political conversation about sexism since the 2008 presidential campaign, Ophuls remains as relevant as ever. Andrew Sarris, the American writer probably most responsible for securing Ophuls's reputation in this country, has made the point explicitly, positing an analogy between Lola Montes's deconstruction of America's empty celebrity obsession and the political ascendance of Sarah Palin. But Sarris's knowledge of and appreciation for Ophuls's work is too deep to allow him to push heavily on the point. While we should rightly celebrate the renewed interest in Ophuls, there is a danger in straining too hard to find significance in its timing—of course, Ophuls is always relevant, but we do him a disservice by somehow reducing his movies to a comment on the present. His themes are persistent; his command of craft is practically unrivaled; his films are endlessly rewarding and enduringly watchable.
Despite his genius, Ophuls has always seemed to require a certain amount of recuperation. A quick perusal of historic New York Times reviews of his movies yields more than a few howlers (Earrings: "Elegant and filled with decorative but basically unnecessary little items, which give it gentility and a nostalgic mood, but nothing much more substantial"; Letter from an Unknown Woman: "If you are looking for sensibility and reasonable emotion in a film, beware of this overwritten Letter. It will choke you with rhetoric and tommy-rot."). Most notoriously, Lola Montes, a big-budget biopic of Eliza Rosanna Gilbert shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor, performed so poorly at the French box office in 1955 that it was recut, with about a half hour removed and the remaining footage rearranged in chronological order. Gilbert, a dancer who took the stage name Lola Montez after separating from her husband in 1842 at the age of 21, famously slept her way through Europe, engaging in well-publicized affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria. In the Ophuls film, Lola is less a biographical subject than an avatar of fallen womanhood and sexual celebrity. The director's tendency to eschew psychological motivation and traditional narration for stylish but cynical social critique may account in part for its chilly reception. Lola Montes is set at an American circus built around Lola herself, as she recounts earlier episodes from her life, which are dramatized in flashback. The circus scenes deconstruct and comment upon the flashbacks, subverting conventional emotional engagement with the film's protagonist. As a result, it's unsurprising, though deeply upsetting, that one of the most significant changes made to the film after its release was to relegate the circus scenes to the end.
The loving restoration and reconstruction of Lola Montes by the Cinematheque Française comes as close as possible to realizing Ophuls's original vision, and the result is stunning. As the circus begins, its ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) promises “the most sensational act of the century,” “the triumph and downfall” of Martine Carol's Lola Montes. Carol's performance has been much maligned over the years, but Ophuls uses her to great effect. When Lola dances for Ludwig, for example, tearing at her bodice, she is as transparent and pathetic as she is alluring, and Carol brings an appropriately vapid, shallow charm throughout. Lola is a woman of no talent or substance, a woman whose sex appeal and brash pursuit of her own self-interest made possible a rapid ascent and precipitous fall, literalized here in a climb up the dizzying heights of the circus tent and a climactic dive to the ground, without the aid of a safety net. Ophuls is most famous for his tracking shots, but the vertical axis is just as important in Lola Montes as the horizontal one. At the beginning of the film, Ophuls's camera tilts down at a low angle as chandeliers are lowered in the circus tent. Later, in a flashback, his camera tracks left, tilts up, tracks right, tilts up, over and over, as Lola travels up the stairs of an opera house, flight by flight. These camera movements give Ophuls an opportunity to show off the extraordinary production design by Jean d'Eaubonne and to subvert the human element of his story. Given the flatness of her characterization and the loveliness of her physical presence, Carol herself becomes another aspect of this spectacular mise-en-scène, and the camera, by ceaselessly following her in her movement through these elaborate spaces, comes to confine her within them, as much as it traces a literal and figurative rise and fall. Watching Lola Montes, it is easy to remember why Ophuls became such an important reference point for auteurist critics in the Fifties and Sixties: his indisputable technical virtuosity uses the language of cinema itself to establish and communicate a fully realized worldview. His camerawork is always indisputably Ophulsian, in the sense of being sweepingly stylish and kinetic but also thoroughly, meticulously thought through.
Lola Montes can perhaps best be understood as a bridge between late-classical melodrama and the generic experiments of the various post-classical international new waves. Like the contemporaneous Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk, Lola uses delirious color, excessive mise-en-scène, and multiple planes within the frame—frequently, we see the principal characters from behind scrims, curtains, and windows—to place us at an emotional remove from the narrative of the film and expose the artifice at its core. But the circus scenes take this emphasis on artificiality to an extreme. The circus is a celebration and mockery of Lola and her life that adds an interpretive gloss to the flashback sequences. By addressing us directly as an audience, these scenes confront us with our own lurid fascination in Lola's exploits and, indeed, Lola's body. This makes the movie's wonderful, sad final shot all the more pointed, because even as Ophuls makes explicit Lola's tragic fate, he indicts us for our complicity in craving the spectacle she represents. Ravishing and reflexive, sumptuous and sad, Lola Montes has finally received treatment worthy of its place in film history. Ophuls died just two years after the movie's release, and it breaks my heart to think that he never saw its magnificent restoration. But as someone who loves the cinema, I count myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to see it myself.