Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Max Ophuls | Lola Montès

diving into history
by Douglas Messerli

Anette Wadenant and Max Ophuls (adaptation from a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent), Jacques Natanson (dialogue), Max Ophuls (director) Lola Montès / 1955, USA 1959

 I saw this film when I was a college student. Fortunately I recall hardly anything from that early viewing, maybe a version of the butchered English-language film cut down from the original 114 minutes to 90 minutes and presented almost completely in chronological order, but more likely, while I lived in New York, the Pierre Braunberger restoration, in which the movie had been expanded to 110 minutes and rereleased at the New York Film Festival in 1969, with a commercial release following across the US.

     Fortunately, Criterion has finally released a newly restored version (2009) by Tom Burton and others that is about as close to Ophuls' original as one can get.

     It is odd even to think that the original audiences could be so insensitive to this beautiful film. True that the 1950s filmgoers might not be prepared for a work that is so obviously artificed, and that reveals much of its story through tableaux vivant and circus acts. Today, Ophuls' masterpiece—a word I rarely use in writing on film—seems to bear a closer relationship to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge than to any Hitchcock thriller of the day. Certainly Ophuls use of color out-does even Luhrmann's vivid palette. More obviously, Ophuls' work is not a coarse frenzy of action, but a carefully nuanced movement of the camera and actors that almost literally cuts and shapes the work before our very eyes. Moreover Ophuls' work fits very nicely with the both the thematics and artificed "reality" of theater played out in Jean Renoir's theatrical trilogy: "La Carousse d'Or (1952), French Cancan (1954), and Elena et les hommes (1956). So why did Ophuls' work displease its original audiences?

     I was not there, and I suspect any speculation I might make could be met with more knowledgeable suggestions. What is obvious is that Renoir's relationship with strong, sexual women within highly theatrical settings, is located almost entirely in the past. There is almost a kind of nostalgia, lovely as it, is Renoir's films. The forceful courtesans of his works, it is clear, do not, cannot exist in contemporary life.

      Ophuls' Lola, on the other hand, although clearly demonstring events of long ago, is cinematically placed in a mishmash of time, moving non-chronologically through time and space, from her early affair with Liszt, returning to the present of the story played out with circus trappings, then going even further back to her early to her teenage sexuality, forward again to the circus where the doctor expresses his fears for her future, then back in time to the more recent seduction of Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. Others of her liaisons—with Wagner, Chopin, Dumas, and Alexandre Dujarier—are only hinted at or not even mentioned. In short, the film does not attempt to focus on her entire life, but only upon almost accidental encounters, memories that flash out before her on this one particular night. Rather than traveling through history, Ophuls shows Lola diving, almost at random, into the fragments of her life. There is, one might argue, no truly historical perspective possible for her, only an emotional and sexual one.

    So too does Ophuls, using his somewhat stolid and stony-faced actress Martine Carol in contradictory ways, present Lola in numerous opposing positions. She first appears almost as a kind of statue, a representation of herself sitting atop spinning platters at the circus, then lounging as a supine trophy in Liszt's coach, unhappy with her state. Through nearly all the Liszt scenes she lies in bed, bored or pretending to sleep.

    Yet later Ophuls and his camera follow her movements vertically and horizontally as she moves straight up, at angles, and out upon the trapeze from which she will eventually make her final dive, which we fear, may end her life.

     Although she is described as a dancer, we never see her dance. She glides in and out of rooms—at one point her future circus master, Peter Ustinov demanding that she stand still—she floats into chairs and sofas or into benches of her coach. She hovers over the shoulders of her ardent lover, Ludwig. But only once, does she even hint that she can dance (and Ustinov, in his brilliantly acted visit to her, outrightly denies that she can). No matter how great of a performer the real Lola might have been, the film Lola clearly performs best in bed. It is difficult to feel sympathy, accordingly, for the emptiness, the loneliness of Lola's current life, even if her loves are less those of a money-grubbing courtesan than those of woman seeking true romance.  

     I would not suggest, however, that Ophuls really asks for sympathy, even empathy. All that is wondrous about Lola is that she is nearly unstoppable, that she turns the world into action, immediately leaving anything that is dying or dead behind. Like Ophuls' ever-moving camera, she is a life force, willing to put her own being, every night, on the line. In the end, she dives to survive once again. Our final glimpse of her is behind a cage-like construction to where the males of the circus audience are invited to come forward and kiss her hand, as if the very touch of her might regenerate their lives.

    It might useful be to remember that the real Lola Montés, after having lived even a busier life than that depicted upon the screen, died at the early age of 42.
Los Angeles, November 14, 2011

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