Sunday, 20 January 2008

Lola Montès (Ophüls, 1955)

Lola Montès (1955) is something of a mixed bag. And I'm not entirely sure why that is? I'm too tired to go into specifics anyway, but I'm not "ga-ga-OMG-best-film-evah" with this like I am with Madame de..., Liebelei and Letter from an Unknown Woman. I think that has as much to do with my reception of the film - on a shoddy video + half-awake + only a single viewing - as the actual work itself. That said, the more I contemplate this, the more I admire it. Lola Montès is a continuation of the Ophülsian theme of the fallen woman, but it nonetheless stands out as an anomaly within his oeuvre. There are numerous reasons for this, but the most apparent one to me was the fact that instead of using the titular character as a vehicle with which to cross-examine the nature of love, Ophüls opts to tell a very different story - one with a peculiar celebrity spin on it.

Lola Montès as (im?)pure character is nothing less than fascinating - and yet one never truly sympathises with her plight in the same way that we do with Lisa Berndle and Madame de. Ophüls' stylizations here distance us from Lola Montès, and it's within this distance that the director creates a metaphysical world whereby he weaves a discourse that deconstructs the role of celebrity. The centrality of the circus within this narrative demands us to consider the relationship between performer and audience, and in essence this applies to Lola's own history and her controversial (and supposedly numerous) liaisons. Furthermore, the stage at the film's core emphasises the role of artifice in the film - a concept that Ophüls naturally exploits to its full potential.

As was the case with my viewings of Liebelei, I cannot even begin to imagine how resplendent this film initially seemed - particularly in terms of colour. I must've caught about a tenth of the film's glory when I watched it, which is a shame because the effect of a decent print makes a world of difference and could've bludgeoned my senses into submission simply through its colour palette (much like the restoration of Renoir's The River, for example). The much-discussed fluidity of Ophüls' camera here is a curiosity: whereas in his other films I perceived these movements to be motivated by a romantic desire on the characters' part to escape the restrictions imposed upon them by plot, in Lola Montès I felt none of this? In fact, I felt that the camerawork here often had the converse effect of further entrapping Lola within the decadent confines of her environments. Of course, it would take a second viewing of this film to comment on that more...

Before I get too carried away, allow me to pause and say that Ophüls' complex manoeuvres aren't always successfully reconciled with his story, and it's a discrepancy that isn't necessarily countered by his genius. The structure of the narrative is markedly uneven, most obviously in the lack of consistency re: our returns to the circus. And upon those seemingly random forays onto the stage, the ringmaster's commentary occasionally proves detrimental - as in the moments when he describes Lola's social ascendancy whilst the camera acrobatically follows her climb to a theatrical summit (although it's very uncharacteristic of Ophüls to treat his audience with such disrespect, so perhaps there are others force at work here?) Moreover, the story of Lola Montès itself does little to inspire our enthusiasm - her lifestyle in 1955 must surely have seemed tame, so what to make of it in this day and age?! As a result of this discord, Lola's struggle to love in spite of society's rigidities is rendered lifeless, and lacking in resonance.

However, if the story of Lola Montès - a character whose aforementioned struggle is so Ophülsian it hurts - comes across as uninspiring, then perhaps it's necessary to ask ourselves why this is. He's struck gold with these characters before, so why fail with this one? I notice that Roger Ebert's review takes issue with Martine Carol's performance: "...she comes across as wooden, shallow, not even very attractive." He's accurate, but I think he's also missed the point. Perhaps it's just my love of the guy shining through here, but anyone with a familiarity of his work knows that Ophüls is a terrific director of actresses - Danielle Darrieux, Magda Schneider... hell, this is the guy who even managed to utilize Joan Fontaine's errant brow to his advantage. What I propose is that Carol's prosaicism is intended, and is entirely befitting of the director's thematic concerns. Personally, I don't think it's a performance that's completely banal - there's poignancy in Carol's work - but even so, the fact that she so underwhelms as a character is surely part of Ophüls' commentary about the ludicrous nature of myth-making? Her vacant expressions constantly undermine the narrative's core creation of a sensual seductress - so effectively, she's a mirror and not an originator of the film's frivolous lust. Through Carol's intelligent performance then, the film assumes a feminist dimension that it might otherwise have lacked, forcing the audience to confront the frequent objectification of Lola, and drawing attention to our own expectations of sex and desire.

Lola Montès isn't a flat-out masterpiece, but I'd argue that this is perhaps an essential demonstration of Ophüls' directorial flair? His ability to overcome a somewhat cumbersome screenplay through his bold celebration of artifice is a marvel to behold, and his handling of wider themes is perhaps more astute than ever. The film's exploration of the relationship between performer and audience is something that I find particularly striking considering that this would be his last film, and the surprising finale is perhaps his most well-executed from all that I've seen to date. It's as heartbreaking as his greatest romances, but ultimately a scathing critique of our own needs as an audience. As the final word on the physical and moral decadence that permeates so many of his films then, Lola Montès is a fitting epitaph to an exceptional career.

And LOL, I think I convinced myself of my love for this whilst typing up those thoughts!

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