Lola Montès remains an exquisite treatise on visual pleasure
"You give your body and you keep your soul." This is the Faustian bargain a circus promoter offers Lola Montès (Martine Carol) in Max Ophüls' reimagining of the Victorian courtesan's life. Ophüls, himself something of a ringmaster, inscribes his enchantress in a ravishing purgatory; the film skates complex figure-eights of flashback and reenactment, seduction and spectacle, voyeurism and exhibitionism. Ophüls was known for his 19th century élan, but his swan song is the work of a consummate modernist. A spirit of jubilant decay overhangs his taste for shots that simultaneously sensationalize the cinematic apparatus and lay it bare. Unlike Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981), however, Lola Montès (1955) registers the emotional strain of such stylistic excess. A lavish production process and subsequent bowdlerized edits left Lola a dormant dream for decades, but a new restoration by Cinémathèque Française once again looses Ophüls' picaresque of novelistic depth and ironic artifice.
The plot, later revived in Showgirls (1995) and The Last Mistress (2007), is that of the woman navigating the marketplace. We're introduced to Lola in spectacle res, exhibited as a circus' main attraction. The ringmaster crows about her past lovers, moving her through reenactments of former exploits. Lola's own flashbacks carry the film back to her trysts with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and Bavaria's King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), and the circus stage-sets transmogrify into Ophüls' equally fantastic uses of Technicolor and CinemaScope.
The ringmaster announces Lola as a femme fatale, but Ophüls doesn't let us off so easily. Like Citizen Kane (1941), Lola Montès deconstructs biographical tropes. But whereas the flashback structure of Orson Welles' debut fragments the character of power, Lola's jigsaw scheme slips us through the looking glass of desire. Ophüls' camera movements simultaneously imbue the film with realist fluidity and make us more aware of theatrical, painterly aspects of set design and staging. This dynamism, so important to future melodrama artists like R.W. Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, is crucial to Lola's crumpled beauty. And if Martine Carol's porcelain performance gets crushed by the double-sided brilliance of Max and his tracks, it's not at all clear that he intends for us to feel we've broken through her façade.
The film's rude asides about product placement and the profit margins of scandal ("Especially in America!") give Lola continued currency, but it's Ophüls' remarkable use of the still nascent CinemaScope technology that makes the restoration a must for the big screen. Lola is one of the few films of its era to express the contradictory potentials of Henri Chétien's anamorphic process. Ophüls sows his widescreen images with all manner of obstructions, so that Lola simultaneously seems to expand and shrink into the largesse of her role. Roland Barthes might have been thinking of this shattering example of movie portraiture when he wrote of CinemaScope: "The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of great dramaturgies."
LOLA MONTÈS opens Wed/19 in Bay Area theaters.