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An amber kaleidoscope: “Lola Montes” (Ophüls, 1955)

More a gem than a crystal, Lola Montes begins looking up at twin chandeliers so baroque that their descending shudder makes one think the little globs of glass dangling will break free and fall to the floor at any second. Indeed: at one point our heroine walks a tightrope between literal, if equally metonymic, stages of her life. Martine Carol stars as Lola in Max Ophüls’ final film, acting as buxom locus for this spectacle of refraction, giving us plenty to savor as much as revile as much as pity while the director plays ringmaster (or Ringmaster plays Director) orchestrating her life’s story in swirls and tilts and all forms of excess. It’s a big movie. And, lucky for us, Rialto Pictures has imported a “definitive” 35mm restoration from the Cinémathèque Française to tour America, just like Ophuls’ salacious star subject.
Titillate it does. Like many of the superlative films concerned with spectacle, including others in the Ophüls oeuvre, Lola Montes invites and seduces its audiences while it interrogates the gaze. Ophüls is one of the great plenists: his world is stuffed full of things. And every single thing looks delicious. Curtains, wrought iron, gowns, sequins, furnaces, a carriage, her smile. The Earrings of Madame de… here become those chandeliers to start, and then become flesh, become a neck and a bust (at one crucial juncture ripped free from) underneath a corset. Yet, for all the traps she dives into at will, and for all her constant objectification, Lola retains some agency through most of her story—if anything, she never ceases to be a human. She may be daft and slipping through time, and she may be manipulative, but she remains a person, remains capable of cries and tears and dance and failure. In fact, for all her scandalous success across Europe’s stages, she fails as a dancer. We can surmise, given Carol’s fleshy thighs and not-quite-nimble pirouettes (yes, Lola is sick and tired on that tightrope), that Peter Ustinov’s Ringmaster is correct: she has no real talent for dancing. Or, if she does possess any skill, it’s something inherent in her body: to watch her move is pleasure enough.
This seems to remain Andrew Sarris’ argument for Lola Montes as “the greatest film ever made.” This almost works, too, however reductive it may be, because no film auteur moves through spaces the way Ophüls whirls. Lola could be speaking for her director when she says, “For me, life is…a movement.” There are stationary shots, but most are on-the-go masterpieces of snaking conduction. Although every event is staged for the camera, Lola Montes is film-in-the-round. Everything piles and curves, layered, moving against and around itself. Its ludicrously beautiful and iconic moment (its self-parody?) happens after Lola marries Lt. Thomas James (Ivan Desny couldn’t kill a rabbit if he tried) in the Ringmaster’s narrative, with Lola seated, next to a troupe member dressed as James, on a circular platform that turns clockwise inside a tableaux vivant ring circling on a counter track, aligning and disjointing events and timelines. (Again, I laugh: five years earlier, Ophuls made a film called La ronde. —How does a film parody itself? its maker? its kith? and retain its gravity? Is it sheer beauty?) There’s an impulse to offer something of a panoptic plot, one whose fruit bear new sites, but the refractions get in the way; energies are diverted. Time sprouts from within the movement; time moves two ways. In so far as Lola Montes is a crystal (or a gem), it’s at once a gorgeous and a grotesque intertwining. It is amber made kaleidoscopic.
Beginning with fleas, moving to flies, then to bees: it’s a hive film. It dances between spaces. It leaps around time. It layers images and it weighs the celluloid vibrant with colors that, in his new 35mm print, radiate life. It’s fucking dizzy.
Excessive to the end—and what an end!— Ophüls’ film nevertheless never bores nor oversteps itself, and never quite resolves, either. I first saw Lola Montes in a 126-minute form cobbled together from varied print sources that felt limp, not limpid like this 115-minute instantiation. Add to that, as fine as the projection is at the Pacific Film Archive, and despite a devastating wrap during our screening, nothing can top the outright grandiosity of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Lola Montes desires size. To see it big is the only way to see it. Its lesson may be that simple: live big. There are limits to big, clearly, as evidenced by the melt we witnessed, but it seemed to fit with the film as it occurred just before Lola’s long-gestating portrait in Munich is revealed (in our case, unveiled by the moans of a machine and the upstart of light). Being an Ophüls melodrama, there’s a limit as well to one’s heart—which, naturally, is a limit to one’s life. Lola says it: “I’ve lived too much.” Her wobbles on the tightrope are due to a weak heart and a loss of agility, the wear of too much life. Heaped on that, her throat is raw: she’s losing her voice; indeed, in her present circus life, she is denied her voice. Ustinov’s Ringmaster often answers for Lola, keeps her pain hidden behind his words as he whips around the circle. In Munich, the King cannot (rather literally does not) hear Lola in conversation and, like the circus audience, his ardor remains a visual feast. If the circus is a stage given to hyperbole, it seems fair to assume this film-in-the-round bears an inheritance in from opera—excess both in terms of pageantry and in terms of voice and its distortion, its amplification. But, of course, the voice fails Lola Montes. Lola is given voice in an expressly different mode: the body and its capacities (for flight, for passion, for lust), as much as its limits.
The devastating finale concludes that these limits are a prison. That the virtual traps the real, nearly kills it. Or, that to be a woman is to be imprisoned by the gaze. I suppose this is nothing new in current philosophical-critical conversations. However, there’s another side to the bars Lola’s hands stretch through: the other side. While she may display herself, she remains (as a human) resolutely unknown, unaccountable. While the circus story provides an origin, it’s a scaffold filled in on the inside, inside her (inside that cage). The lie of cinema, it seems, is the truth of skepticism: we may know Lola Montes and Martine Carol to be beautiful creatures capable of great ferocity and foxiness but we will never know their thoughts. The private floods the screen but, for all that story, it never floods the arena; all the audience gets is events open for all to see. We are denied articulation at the close and all we’re given is resignation, a fleeting “thanks for coming” before the curtain is drawn and we remain, of decency as much as of running time necessity, separate. But don’t forget: the gem doesn’t just fall, it leaps—it chooses to return to earth from its gilded perch—into life.
Lola Montes opens in the Bay Area on November 19, 2008 at The Castro (San Francisco), The Smith Rafael (San Rafael) and The Elmwood (Berkeley).

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