Saturday, August 19, 2006

Classic of the week: Lola Montes (1955, Max Ophüls)

Like DAVID HOLZMAN’S DIARY, which I also saw for the first time this past week, LOLA MONTES deals with the idea of a life as spectacle, though the similarities end there. The most obvious example of this theme is the film’s framing device, which finds Lola re-enacting her life for a crowd of circus onlookers. It’s telling that Ophuls uses a public venue from which to flash back to the events of Lola’s life, rather than, say, the writing of a memoir, since she was not one to shy away from scandal. In the world of the film, she invites hubbub and controversy wherever she goes- even such a small thing as torn clothing causes a stir among those around her (memorably setting up a palace-wide search for a needle and thread). Watching the film, I couldn’t help but recall a recent conversation I overheard about what sophistication means in cinema- the popular answer being an attitude toward sex- and how perfectly this fit in with that definition, as when Lola’s servants coolly try to recall the number of lovers she’s had. One of the most frequent criticisms of the film is that Martine Carol, who plays Lola, doesn’t have the star presence to pull off such a larger-than-life character, but I think that’s what Ophuls was going for- Carol was beautiful and sensuous, yes, but she’s also life-size onscreen, and a more charismatic performer would have had a hard time pulling off the character in the framing device, when she’s but a shadow of her former self. This being Ophuls, this movie is gorgeous- nobody could move a camera like him- and although he’s clearly a great filmmaker we don’t hear much about him nowadays (in other words, time for a resurgence). LOLA MONTES makes wonderful use of color and ‘Scope framing, and I’d relish the opportunity to see it on the big screen. But what stuck out in my mind wasn’t the beauty of the proceedings, but how sad the tale was that they served- a woman whose life went from being the lover of a king to standing in a circus cage among the animals, selling kisses for a dollar.

Rating: ***1/2.

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