Saturday, May 22, 2010


I still remember my experience on the set of Max Ophuls's final film.

The State Department had sent me on a goodwill tour of Europe, and I was assigned on this particular day to be a special guest at a circus. We did our best to convey to the foreigners that we needed to get to the circus, and by some fluke we got to one, only to find that it was going to be filmed for a movie. As an international dignitary I was introduced to the director. I know my movies and I knew he'd done some back home. "I liked one very much," I told him, "What was it's name?... Letters, wasn't it? Yes! Letter to Three Wives! An excellent film. Congratulations, sir!"

"No, no." he demurred.

"No false modesty, friend. Only I don't see how you end up making documentaries about a circus after that. It's a shame if you're a Commie. I mean that you can't keep working in Hollywood because you are one. If you are, that is. But I suppose I'm only in your way here and you're obviously a busy man."

"Actually," he said, "You're just what I need for this scene I'm filming."

"Oh, I'm no camera hog, Mr. Offals. I don't want to call attention to myself in the middle of your movie and all."

"But you are just right! And you'll be in color and Cinemascope, too."

"You've got Cinemascope?" I was flabbergasted. "We thought you were years away, unless your side has someone inside Fox, that is."

"Have you even been in a Cinemascope film, sir?"

"Why, I was made for the wide screen. Academy ratio can't hold me; just let 'em try! Heck, Cinerama's what you need to get all of me on screen. But no, I haven't."

"Well, that's just why I want you. I need a subject that can fill the screen, and I see you as the first person the people see when they come to my movie, your vast continental embrace welcoming them to the circus. You must do this for me."

Pictures don't lie, so as anyone can plainly see I was cajoled out of my usual modesty. I got to see that circus several times over. But I didn't get to see the movie until about 35 years later, and imagine my surprise! They put in all these extra scenes from outside of the circus. I guess it was to explain how that lady ended up joining the circus. But it fouled up the narrative flow of things, I thought, and some of my best scenes got cut. That's show business, I suppose, and it's why I stick to meatpacking.

* * *

A bit of a tall tale, I admit, but so is Lola Montes. It's been something like twenty years since I first saw it and I remember being disappointed by it, even though I could not get the music out of my head. George Auric's theme song, especially its bombastic circus-band rendition, was my most indelible memory of the film over the years. Seeing it again at last on a Criterion DVD, I recognized the circus theme as the same tune that played more softly and romantically over the opening credits. It's an impressive opening gambit to introduce this lovely piece of music, then parody it a moment later. It sets the tone for this mad gambit of a movie.

As the supplemental materials tell us, Ophuls was compelled to use color, Cinemascope, and leading lady Martine Carol by producers who improbably looked to him to create a global blockbuster. He responded to the imposition with megalomaniacal inspiration when it came to filming the circus framing sequences. Lola's circus is a surreal avalanche of color, costume and choreography on a Mammoth scale, a regimented riot of grotesquerie that may have given Fellini ideas but looks less like his work than a late Kurosawa adaptation of Dr. Seuss. Ophuls reportedly had 3,000 extras in the audience, and his instant mastery of the wide screen deepens the sense of enclosed vastness. The circus scenes are on such a higher level of artistry than the rest of the film (which I do not disparage) that you're tempted to wish that Ophuls had anticipated Lars von Trier and filmed the entire story under the big top.

George Annenkov's costumes give Lola Montes's circus scenes much of their fantastic quality.

But turning the entire film into a circus would lose the point of contrast. There are at least two, and more likely three contending narratives of the career of Lola Montes in play in Ophuls's film. There's the lurid narrative of sin and scandal sold by Peter Ustinov's ringmaster and illustrated by the circus performers; there are Lola's own flashbacks; and there's what I take to be an "objective" account of her time in the court of the King of Bavaria (the sublime Anton Walbrook). The supplements explain that Ophuls originally wanted to do a modest-budgeted black and white film about Lola's adventures in Bavaria, so I interpret the long final flashback as a remnant of the old idea and not one of Lola's subjective flashbacks. The other sequences -- a scene from an unspecified past recounting her amiable breakup with Franz Liszt and an account of teenage Lola's rebellion against her mother and first romance (with her mom's paramour) -- are more clearly from Lola's point of view. They establish her restlessness and aversion to permanence and set a pattern of perpetual travel that helped make her real life kind of a circus, at least in Ophuls's opinion.

Cinemascope gives Martine Carol and Will Quadflieg (as Liszt) room to stretch out more comfortably in their deluxe carriage. Below, the slowest painter in Bavaria extends Lola's stay at the court of King Ludwig (Anton Walbrook, left).

Lola Montes strikes me as more mercilessly satiric than the other more compassionate Ophuls films I've seen. Apart from the childhood flashback in which the very adult Carol plays the teen Lola and is treated as even more of a child by her mother, the main character isn't very sympathetic and her fate at the end of the picture, kept in a cage so yokels can kiss her hands for a dollar, comes across as a fitting comeuppance rather than a tragic fate. But there is something tragic about Lola, and I suppose it's what reminded me of The Wrestler when Lola, like Randy the Ram, chooses to make a climactic jump that might kill her even if she does it right. In either case, I guess, the tragedy is that the show must go on, the show being an alternative to, an escape from, ultimately a parody of real life.

Ever since the film's disastrous premiere, nearly everyone has said that Martine Carol was miscast, including the actress herself. I've never seen her in anything else that I can recall, so I can judge her only by what I see here, not previous works or preconceptions of her star persona. She's quite convincing, at age 35, as a pretty but worn-out trouper, but I can see why the same actress might not convince as the sex goddess of the 1848 generation. But she still works in those flashbacks that express her retrospective point of view. Also, I think part of the point of the film is that Lola in the flesh doesn't quite live up to the hype that was building around her and made her, like Marie Antoinette, a provocation for revolutionaries. Lola Montes was a legend in her own mind as well as a scandalous legend for the western world, but Carol's rather demoralized presence in the center ring hints at the pathetic truth behind the legend. I don't think hers is a great performance, but it works for Ophuls's purposes.
The main reason to see Lola Montes isn't anyone's performance but the tremendous visual achievement of Max Ophuls at the unwitting end of his career. It's a one-of-a-kind spectacle that was ahead of its time yet influential in spite of its initial box-office failure. An additional reason to see the Criterion DVD is an amazing 1965 French TV documentary on Ophuls. It features reminiscences from Carol, Ustinov and actors from earlier Ophuls movies, all with a busy circus backdrop inspired by Lola Montes, along with dancers representing his other films. Its nostalgia for Ophuls evokes his own nostalgia for times and places he never really knew. Lola is not his best film, but it has some of his best filmmaking, and that's some of the best you'll see from anybody.
Here's a trailer for the 2008 restoration, straight from the Criterion Collection:


dfordoom said...

I've wanted to see Lola Montes for quite a while. Unfortunately Criterion DVDs are way out of my price range these days.

Samuel Wilson said...

That's true for me, for the most part, unless Barnes & Noble does one of their 50% off sales. My local library isn't consistent about picking up Criterions, but they did get this one. These days, any library worthy of the name should subscribe to get the whole set.

dfordoom said...

Unfortunately Criterion DVDs aren't available for rental at all in Australia. Thanks to region coding if we want to see a Criterion DVD we have to buy it, and with shipping they end up costing anywhere from $50-60.