C’est moi, c’est Lola
LOLA MONTES (Max Ophuls, France, 1955, 9)
I rented a VHS tape of LOLA MONTES from Blockbuster almost 20 years ago, and it was the first time I ever saw a video in the Letterbox (or Widescreen Video) format. The picture at the top of this piece is of LOLA MONTES’ first post-credits image(1); it practically popped my eyes out and sold me instantly and forever on letterboxing. I already well understood the geometry of the TV-screen shape and the widescreen shape but to have THAT be the first image was one of the unforgettable, seminal moments of my filmgoing life. How could I even think of looking at this film with one of those two chandeliers cropped out, or maybe both chopped in half? Or any other similar film. And since that dynamic first shot goes on for 3 or 4 minutes in a single track while a veritable circus of events goes on in the background, LOLA MONTES couldn’t have been better Providentially planned to tell me — “here’s what you miss if you don’t letterbox.”
I looked again at LOLA MONTES last week on a 20-year-old second-generation VHS tape over a period of several days, treating the film as the equivalent of bedside reading — watching as much as I could when I was tired, and stopping when I could no longer keep my eyes open. Not the ideal way to see the film, of course, but it underlined the film’s dreamy, episodic quality, and its status as a memory piece about discourse. But next week (and believe me, I’m counting the days), myself and other Washington filmgoers will get a chance to see LOLA MONTES the right way, as Rialto Pictures is giving the film a theatrical release (no doubt to gather publicity for an imminent DVD release, but I’ll take em any way they’ll give em). Here’s the trailer.
Several things about LOLA MONTES are obvious from the trailer even to someone who hasn’t seen the film (and since I have, there’s no “trailer fooling” me). First of all, that the film is a marvel of art and set decoration, of sumptuous excess, which the film gobbles up, thanks to director Max Ophuls’s near-constantly moving camera. Second, that Ophuls repeatedly uses multiple-level buildings, which in the film become social-climbing metaphors (e.g., action taking place on sets with multiple floors or a narrated trapeze act. The trailer shows the former but not the latter, my favorite scene in the film). Third, that lead actress Martine Carol is rather wooden in the noncircus scenes and trying rather too hard to “Act” in the circus ones. Her role is to serve as a doll or model at best, surrounded by a gaggle of supporting paraphernalia, carefully arranged and framed and layered, as here.
LOLA MONTES is a sort-of-biopic, structured rather like CITIZEN KANE in that both films start with a framing device — a “present tense” at the end of the titular character’s life that purports to tell about that life. These present-tense scenes weave themselves around and through a series of flashbacks to biopic episodes — with much tension between the present-tense discourse and the past-tense flashbacks. Unlike the newspaperman’s quest in KANE for “Rosebud,” LOLA’s “present tense” takes place at a single circus performance; it’s also more prominent in the overall film. I didn’t measure, but I’d estimate about 1/3 of LOLA’s running time takes place at that performance. The formerly-famous and scandalous 19th-century courtesan Lola Montes once had at her feet the men of Europe from kings to students, but now she’s been reduced to being the sort of circus act that people come to stare at and hear about. The flashbacks are her memories.
The curse on the film’s reputation has always been the performance of Martine Carol as Lola. As I said is clear above from the trailer, it is problematic to say the least (though Ty Burr of the Boston Globe dissents well here). Andrew Sarris famously called LOLA MONTES “the greatest film of all time,” though he backed off that later by saying, though not in a place I can find online, that Carol’s performance is simply too weak.(2) Andrew O’Hehir of Salon also measured his praise, though on different grounds, saying:
Lola Montes comes off in 2008 as an enormous and creaky artifice, tough for modern viewers to “get” without a laborious set of CliffsNotes. What was once original and confrontational about it has been swamped by later movies, and what remains seems grand and old-fashioned without being especially absorbing. …
Ophüls’ forward-looking technique is married to his perplexing fascination with the social rituals of 19th century Europe, and because of his total lack of interest in anything we would consider psychological realism.
I understand what O’Hehir is getting at, even stipulating that I have no problem per se with out-of-time irrelevance, and indeed, vastly prefer it, all else equal, to stabs at relevance in period movies.(3) I still think he misses why I think the film remained fresh and vital to me last week, even in the very unideal manner in which I saw it and stipulating Carol’s bad performance, which I think holds the key to how the film works. (Still … to think of what this film could have been if Ophuls could have coaxed Greta Garbo out of retirement, as he tried to a couple of years previously to appear in a proposed version of THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS … vjm weeps.)
My “gut” reaction was that the circus scenes were magnificent and worth the price of admission by themselves because of Peter Ustinov’s sheer virtuosity as the ringmaster and the spectacle he was mastering, while the flashback scenes, the ones depending most on Carol to deliver as an actress, were often rather flat. And the scenes among them that worked best were the ones most like the circus scenes, i.e., those that had an air of public performance about them. This gap is exactly what LOLA MONTES is about — the transformation through art of banal life material into a virtuoso spectacle.
Lola Montes lived a scandalous life as a courtesan, which the judgmental among us might call a glorified and perfumed whore. Her scandal won her fame and riches, but by the end all she’s got left is being a circus freak, turning her life into discourse, accepting an offer she rejected with contempt earlier. And yet that discourse about her life, the circus act with tales of sleeping around turned into acts of being grabbed by successive men on horses, is actually more gripping than the life itself. They call it “printing the legend” and all of that. There are shots in the trailer from the film’s flashbacks of people in “verandas,” in multiple “floors” looking out on a central “courtyard” and applauding, i.e., public performance. Is there a more-relevant and more-contemporary story in a world where “any publicity is good publicity” and where celebrity comes in layers and ranks, to the point where people make jokes about washed-up celebrities cannibalizing on their past stardom by playing themselves on reality-TV shows and the like? And yet the circus, the reality TV, where thousands line up and pay a dollar to kiss Lola’s aged hand through a cage, is what’s most gripping about the life of Lola Montes as represented in the film LOLA MONTES.
Which brings us to relationship between Ophuls and the material. He knew he was dealing with an actress he needed for box office, for name, for an attraction, but who couldn’t even act her way INTO the proverbial wet paper bag. In a review the trailer amusingly takes out of context, Stanley Kauffmann called Carol “a celebrity in today’s most-synthetic sense” and compared her to Zsa Zsa Gabor: she “never could act, and here she isn’t even pretty.” There are moments where the circus act shows us Lola’s limitations as a performer. One such moment is in the trailer — Lola dealing with the bars, set at a height that makes neither going under them or kicking up to them very impressive. The audience loves it because of the interest the ringmaster put into the circus act — in what he choreographs, in what he surrounds Lola with, in his narration, in his cinematic style.
1 Though here it’s a screen-capture, so it’s blurrier and darker even than a good tape.
2 Replacing it with MADAME DE…, certainly a great film, and certainly one that doesn’t have the “Carol” problem, instead boasting three near-perfect ensemble leads.
3 To paraphrase one of Salon’s commenters, a great film needn’t make itself relevant to you, but rather make you relevant to it.
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