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)
Oh, Joan Fontaine. She tells a character’s story like it’s her own. For less than a decade in her career she’s been playing little girls who grow up. Her performance is Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman” made me remember “Rebecca” and start my ‘Best Female Performances’ list, but that’s still too big a task for me. She’s like the precursor to actresses like Kirsten Dunst, the latter having played teenagers for 15 years in her career.
Lisa Berndle (Fontaine) experiences an unrequited love with an egotistic pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). Her earlier mannerisms are waif-y and awkward but she grows into a poised but nonetheless oblivious and idealist of a woman. Her voice is more full and thus distracting this time around. That also means she puts just as much sympathy and maturity to her character the same way that Jourdan does with Stefan.
The characters are still placed within the constraints of a melodrama. I love melodramas but I can’t find a place in my heart for this one. Lisa’s still a stalker. She must have known how Stefan would treat her knowing that he goes through women. She feels no anger for him despite his forgetfulness and how he has not supported their child. Also, despite of how bad his actions look on paper, the film doesn’t blatantly show a streak of meanness on Stefan. However, if the audience had a bigger hint of that, they might have walked out in droves.
What I also appreciate in “Letter” is Ophuls’ auteur-like touch on the film. There’s the long take camerawork that follows its subjects like a carousel. There’s diamonds and glitz and trumpets and music. There’s also the little freedom that the he allows female characters, like he does in parts of “The Earrings of Madame de…”. I’m not an expert on classic melodrama, but I can’t imagine any early female characters allowed to have a second marriage or a marriage after a second child, or the social mobility involving with a 19th century model marrying a general. With Ophuls’ worldview and Fontaine’s performance, it also seems like the movie is more about the fun Lisa had along the way instead of the tragedy that befalls her, and both feel refreshing.