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.
A circus is a great symbol for many reasons. For one, it's a little self-contained microcosm. It can represent the world in general with people and animals from all walks of life and geography. Or it can be a simple family. In Lola Montès, the circus is the world that Lola has escaped to from the "real world". But like we'll see in the "real world" – the question will become "Is Lola a prisoner (a trapped and trained animal) or is she really the one in control?" As she descends (as if from the Heavens) for her entrance, she commands the attention of the Ringmaster and the crowd of men. The power of her sex and love is palpable (beautifully portrayed by Martine Carol). That descent is also going to be symbolic of her descent in real life.
After seeing Lola as more of a commodity to the Ringmaster, we are guided to the second movement of her symphony. This is the first of many flashbacks that will be told out of order. Here we see her relationship with Liszt. This scene is Lola at one of her heights. She is at the peak of her talents as an artist – singer, dancer and actress. Dance is her calling and main talent. The colors here are so brilliant – it's amazing to think this is the director's first color film. Baz Luhrmann could only have wished for the colors in Moulin Rouge to be as brilliant or as evocative. Lola's green dress is life in all its glory.
The third movement finds us starting back at the circus – about to reach the halfway point, not at a peek but at one of her deepest valleys. Lola is filmed at such angles to appear a caged animal. The Ringmaster takes us back to her "happy childhood" but his words are juxtaposed by Lola's flashback. The scene with her mother is once again full of movement and disorientation. Lola's mother treats her like a commodity to – an asset to be married off as soon as possible. Their relationship is underscored by the fact that a young Lola is portrayed by the older actress – it shows us that she is still the same scared girl trailing after her mother.
The fourth and fifth sections are where the movie is really made. The symbolism becomes a little heavy handed – she literally bites the hand that feeds her as she escapes her first marriage. As we transition back and forth between the three rings of the circus and their activities and the three ring circus that her life becomes, we get that same dizzy feeling. We see Lola's emergence as a sexual being after leaving her husband – using her sexuality for power in ways that won't be popular in films until almost a decade after this film was released. We also get an insight into her talents as a dancer – "you give your body but you keep your soul" is advice that she gets about her dance but it applies to her sexuality also. The fourth section ends with the Ringmaster promising her money to be in his circus (can she keep her soul if she sells her body for his money?).
The fifth section revolves around her relationship with Ludwig I. It's a wonderful set of scenes that function like a microcosm of the film. Lola and Ludwig have a wonderful seduction of each other through art and dance. But once the King has Lola, he realizes that he can't keep her. This is brilliantly portrayed through a sexually charged painting of her without actually having to show the two of them together. Her power is not one that can be contained. The camera illustrates this with more gorgeous movements and various color schemes.
The last section is the coda to the symphony. The crescendo of the fifth section flows back into the climax in the circus. Lola is literally performing without a net, just as we've seen her the whole movie. Can she survive another fall – in this case, a dive from the high wire. I'll leave the final act to the viewer but once again, Ophuls can't resist taking the viewer by the hand. His final tracking shot lasts a lifetime as he backs further and further away from Lola. It feels like the viewer is being taken off the stage so the curtain can fall on the big top for another day.
So that leaves Musgo to ask the question again – does a 55-year-old movie hold up to today's viewer? In most ways it does. The themes don't mean the same as they did in 1955. The shock of Lola's emerging sexuality is precious but not shocking. In fact, her treatment by men and the Ringmaster is best revisited today as an allegory on how we treat star actresses – not a theme that would have resonated the same way when the film was released. It's hard to do just a multi-layered story justice in a review like this and that's a good sign. Multiple viewings are going to be necessary to put the different sections into the overall context.
The movie is a treasure for those with patience. The acting is flat in spots – but that has to be the direction. It's important that Lola appear to be no more important than a piece of meat or a collection of expensive clothing. As viewers, we're aware that we're watching a movie the whole time – the narration and camerawork call attention to it often. But I compare it to reading a book – every time you turn a page, you realize it's a book but your brain is able to use that time to slow down and let the story expand in your mind. That's what this film does – your brain takes what's on the screen and over time your mind fills in all the missing details. That just doesn't happen with anything described as a "Buddy" movie.
Criterion has done a wonderful restoration. The movie looks tremendous and the extras are just what you'd expect of a cult/art film. The audio commentary by Susan White is like attending a college lecture on the film – very informative. There are multiple features on Max Ophuls that makes me want to explore more films from his career. I hope Criterion finds the right audience for a film like this – someone needs to pick up this torch and continue making films like this.