I mark every chapter of Max Ophuls‘ biopic of Lola Montes with the carnival routines. It’s probably not good to do so, since I conflate one part of the circus act with another. Some scenes, like the one involving horseback riding, even remind me of other carnival movies like the one with Charlton Heston.
It’s probably better to do this instead with what part of the heroine’s (Martine Carol) fascinating life that we’re seeing, like her mansion at the French Riviera or when she was Bavarian King’s (Anton Walbrook) courtesan. But there’s something less concrete about those episodes, as if they were a fantasy, because circumstances disallow permanence. Without the carnival the movie would be surprisingly boring, as if we’re watching her shuffling to different palaces. There’s beauty in those places but the circus’ surreal set pieces are to die for.
The movie’s transitions from wide-screen to lesser-wide screen seems more choreographed with repeat viewings. The ringmaster’s (Peter Ustinov) voice more commanding, the conversations between Lola and a German student (Oskar Werner) more intimate because the frame’s walls are closer. However, these black spaces also makes this feel like an incompletely restored movie. For a master, it feels like a gimmick to make these kinds of decisions or the refusal to make such a decision.
I want to know something deeper about the commonalities of Ophuls’ films, deeper than his opulent portrayal of the fragile status of the 19th century woman. Like fleeting glory that they can only touch but never hold. I envy women. Or maybe it’s the failed misogynist in the that does so, thinking that their ability to marry or consort into money isn’t self chatelling. I’m willfully confusing seduction with power. Social distinctions were more distinct back in Lola’s lifetime but she transcends her poor and suspiciously mysterious Irish provenance and be on stage for or to sit alongside Tsars and Grand Dukes and Kings.
But when students depose Kings they also get rid of her status. Her carnival life after Bavaria is as humiliating as, I imagine, it would have been for Cleopatra had she been found alive. A circus copyrights her life and she has to do it nightly for different towns. Thankfully she makes no pretenses, that she’s nothing but a performer. As a metaphor for her life, for the last act she climbs up different ladders and swings to the ceiling of the tent until she has to risk her life, taking a leap all the way down.
- “Cinema’s 50 greatest flops, follies, and failures” (gointothestory.com)