Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Criterion may singlehandedly be keeping the idea of Film As Art alive today. The films they release can't appeal to the broad range of people who rent their movies from a box outside of a 7-11. But for those who are willing to put in the time, they can be memorable and rewarding in ways that I usually only get from good literature. Last year, I had the privilege of reviewing their release of a relatively current film, Brand Upon The Brain!. That film was untraditional in its narrative and told a number of stories, rewarding the viewer for repeated viewings with its depth. It was very stylized but the substance was there to be unlocked.
Criterion has now released what is considered a classic of the art/cult film genre, Lola Montès. The film from 1955 is directed by the legendary Max Ophuls. This film is my first opportunity to see one of his films but the German director is legendary for those of us who read about the classic directors. His use of cinematography and long sweeping shots were a definite influence on the works of Kubrick - you can see it almost directly in Barry Lyndon. But while this film was groundbreaking at the time of its release, what is always curious to me know is how will it resonate with audiences 55 years later. We are sophisticated viewers for the most part - and people who are going to pick up a historical film in French by a German director probably have higher expectations of their movie than anybody who pays to see anything with "Squeakquel" in the title.
The movie is told in six parts. Each forms a sort of movement in a symphony. Each part does not necessarily stand alone but they each illustrate the themes of the picture and do form different emotional beats throughout the film. Most of the story will be told through flashbacks - it's an old standard that allows the director to manipulate the story. Dishing out facts at the director's discretion often makes a movie feel forced, which is why the flashback can backfire. Here, it allows a natural progression of themes to illustrate what we see in the beginning and leading into our final scene.
The movie opens in a circus. It's here that we see the glory of all of the director's bag of tricks. It's also the place that I started to worry about the next two hours. The camera tracks back and forth across the members of the circus. There is a cacophony of movement - the camera and characters. It's hard to even know where to focus. That is until the Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) takes over as our de-facto narrator. He's going to guide us through this early scene and direct us to where we will look in Lola's life during our flashbacks.