Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Lola Montès, the infamous dancer and courtesan (Martine Carol), has been reduced to performing in a circus, albeit as the star attraction; the entire show is built around her life, as narrated partly by herself but mostly by a ubiquitous ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) and acted out in dance and tableaux vivants by the circus company. We see one evening's performance, from on stage and off, alternating with the details of her life presented through Lola's own flashbacks. As a young girl, she is pimped by her own mother, though she ends up marrying a handsome young soldier--whom, if I'm not mistaken, her mother had been sleeping with. He (Ivan Desny) turns out to be a lout and she leaves him, becoming a ballerina. Dancing across Europe, she creates scandals: smoking cigars in public, taking lovers everywhere (including Franz Liszt), and being unafraid to make a scene when she feels wronged--as when she jumps off the stage and dresses down her married lover, in front of his wife. She settles down as mistress to King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook) but when she begins ostentatiously throwing her influence around, revolutionaries whip up some outrage against her and she is expelled from the country, winding up in this traveling circus. Throughout the movie, we have seen that, though she is still relatively young, she is in ill health, and her doctor warns her not to take her final high dive during her climactic trapeze act. Will she go through with it anyway? Will she live to meet her adoring public after the show?

Rarely do I watch a movie without having a pretty good idea of what I'm getting into. I've usually heard of the film and know something about its reputation or its cast or director, and often I read some reviews beforehand; at the very least, I look at the capsule reviews of Halliwell and Maltin. This one I came too with very little knowledge. I've seen a couple of movies by its director Max Ophüls but I have read very little about him, and all I knew to expect was a lush look and a restless camera. Though in its day, this was considered a disappointment (largely due to the disjointed narrative and what is perceived as a lackluster performance by Martine Carol), I enjoyed it quite a bit. The phrase "visually ravishing" was made to describe a film like this; Ophüls' use of rich colors, finely detailed sets and costumes, elaborate camera movements, and the widescreen make this a visual delight. Carol is not the most expressive actor here, but I suspect Ophüls intended that to be the case; though we see most of her story through her own eyes, we never really get to know her or what motivates her. Indeed, the film really seems to be about not Lola, but the media "circus" that surrounds her, and the ways in which public lives are "narrated" by and within the larger culture. I was frequently reminded, by theme or camera shot or use of fractured narrative, of later films like CABARET, ALL THAT JAZZ, CHICAGO, and MOULIN ROUGE--even though this film is not a musical. Ustinov, who like the rest of the international cast, speaks French, and Walbrook are excellent. The Criterion disc, which restores the original uncut version, is sparklingly clear and gorgeous. Highly recommended. [DVD]

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