Monday, February 15, 2010

What Ophüls wants...: Lola Montès on DVD

It is perhaps too easy to dismiss the celebrity whose ascent is fueled by dubious artistic talent and “mere” sex appeal. Is the cultivation of celebrity not a talent in itself? We never actually see the eponymous heroine of
Lola Montès (1955) exhibit her ostensible skills as dancer or singer. While her story is framed by a dazzlingly baroque circus act of which she is both star and subject, she barely addresses her public, leaving the extolling of her legacy to Peter Ustinov’s wonderfully cynical ringmaster, who introduces her as “a bloodthirsty monster with the eyes of an angel.”

The real Lola, née Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Irish-born, Spanish by shtick, dancer and actress by trade, mistress to powerful men by vocation, never toured the world in quite such spectacularly self-objectifying fashion as is depicted in this, Max Ophüls’ final masterpiece, mangled upon its initial release, newly restored in all its unspeakable gorgeousness, and now available from the Criterion Collection. The movie, which can be called a bio-pic in only the loosest sense, plays jazz over the very foggy historical facts of Montès’ life, yet Ophüls evokes truths that more fact-based accounts could never hope to grasp. The project was originally meant to be more modest, but as the producers insisted on hoisting such intrusions as Technicolor, Cinemascope and sex goddess Martine Carol upon Ophüls—who utilized each of these items masterfully—
Lola Montès increasingly became a kind of critique of itself. As Marcel Ophüls, the director’s son, said, the more they tried to turn the project into a grandiose commercial spectacle, the more Lola Montès became a movie about grandiose commercial spectacle. See Lola being serenaded by Franz Liszt in a horse-drawn carriage the size of a Winnebago as they glide through rural Italy; see Lola bid farewell to Anton Walbrook’s King Ludwig and escape a Bavarian uprising by being ushered through a labyrinth of catacombs by a lovesick young Oskar Werner; see Lola dive from the peak of the big top way down onto a little mattress placed by an army of acrobatic multi-colored midgets…

We see Lola whisked through numerous opulent settings, always beautiful, sumptuously costumed, and a little melancholy, always captured by Ophüls’ relentlessly mobile cameras, their fluid movements emphasizing the transitory nature of being and the sweep of memory and theatre. But we never see inside Lola’s heart and mind. Two hours after being regaled of her feats of seduction we hardly know a thing about her, hardly penetrate her exquisite exterior. If this feels uncomfortably like vacuous pageantry, well, that’s kind of the idea. This is biography as high wire act, with Ophüls concocting one breathtaking, elaborately staged episode after another, and the sadness of it all accumulates only in the margins. It’s a bizarre cinematic experience, audacious, enthralling, and frustrating. There’s nothing like
Lola Montès. It cries out for the big screen, but Criterion’s package is the best possible substitute, and the extras are terrific. It’s their fourth such packaging of Ophüls’ French output. I’m now crossing my fingers that they’ll start dipping into his underrated Hollywood films.

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