(c) Therese Grisham, 2010. All rights reserved.
I remember reading that Max Ophuls said of Martine Carol, the actress who plays Lola Montes (she was known in France for acting in boudoir romances, and notorious for being a bad actress), that the more woodenly she acted, the better for the film. This makes perfect sense to me, because Lola Montes is about desire long after it has died, and before it even had a chance to come into being in the world in the first place. In one way or another, Ophuls’ heroines in Liebelei, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught, The Reckless Moment, and Madame De . . . all experience this death, but at the end, rather than the beginning, of the film.
This death has to do with a “fall,” and a “fallen woman.” I want to make this distinction, because so many critics have talked about Ophuls’ “fallen women.” Given his refreshing refusal to make moral judgments, which runs throughout these films, I don’t think Ophuls would agree with the term. That issue aside, not all of these films contain an adulterous woman or prostitute, in the first place. What do they share? The type of fall the protagonists experience is one in which a) their desire/pleasure is awakened at some point, through a fantasmatic image of a man “devoted to love,” who disappoints them because they finally realize that he is not the figure they believed he was; and b) their “fall,” as it were, is from pleasure and desire into reality, disappointment, and ensuing pain, and even death, whether psychic or physical, which often marks the end of the film.
However, that stated, the “fallen woman” is crucial to the diegetic dimension of many of Ophuls’ films, because this is how the woman is viewed by other characters, or how she will be viewed if her “fall” is made public; in addition, this is often how she views herself–through the constructs and mores of her era and society, which are, in these films, always strict, oppressive, and repressed. In Lola Montes, it’s a particularly important construct, because it’s the draw for Lola’s circus act—to see a fallen woman displayed in public, where it’s acceptable for an audience to stare at her without hiding, and to revel in every moment of her fall. The curtains, bars, irises, and other blocks that Ophuls sets in our way in the backstage arena, as well as in Lola’s memories, where we are made to spy, hidden from view, on her private life. Interestingly, though we are cast as Peeping Toms, we never gain knowledge of Lola’s interior life; we are kept resolutely outside it. This role is created for us early in the film, in Lola’s first memory, of the end of her relationship with Franz Liszt. We view her through a window of his carriage. Almost immediately, Liszt comes to the window and closes the curtain on our prying eyes.
Usually, the woman’s desire and pleasure set into motion Ophuls’ particular cinematic apparatus, which has to do with setting stasis into flow, stillness into movement, the known (patriarchy/man, literature) into the “untimely” (woman, film). (Here, I’m reminded of Donati’s letter-writing mania, and the fact that Madame De . . . shreds his letters and the letters she claims she has written to him, but never mailed, into confetti, which we watch drifting from the train window as falling snow . . .). Woman’s desire also suspends narrative, and makes time work elliptically, both contracting and expanding it.
Elsewhere, I will sharply distinguish Ophuls’ cinematic apparatus from both classical Hollywood film as discussed by Laura Mulvey and others, and also from the woman’s film, with which Ophuls’ films have been closely identified. For now, I want to state only that Lola begins where these the other protagonists end. In addition, this is the only Ophuls film I have seen in which he voluntarily chooses to use close-ups and a still camera (in the flashbacks and back-stage). This is significant.
Ophuls composes the action as a three-ring circus: Lola’s circus act; her memories; and the backstage circus-world. I’ll concentrate on Lola’s memories here, signaled to us as flashbacks, through dissolves, as she performs her circus act. Her act is the commodified spectacle of the story of her life. While it is obvious that the circus world is theatrical, with acrobatics and pantomime, there is no little reference to the influence of Hollywood movies and spectatorship, as well as the future of cinema (Ophuls had read Hitchcock on “refrigerator culture,” and grieved the vanishing “aesthetic patience” needed to watch a film that did not participate in commodity/consumer culture).
In the Mammoth Circus (what a great name for Hollywood–and with “Mammoth Midgets,” too!), we get all the movement we desire from Ophuls, renowned for his sweeping crane and tracking shots. Camera movement follows very closely the POV of the spectators at the circus, as well as our point of view, figured into the film, as film spectators and consumers. We await Ophuls performing as Ophuls the filmmaker, and that’s what we get, albeit this time with his critical observations about us factored in. We move to the very end of the line of spectators waiting to kiss Lola’s hand, through that intensely sad tracking shot at the end of the film. I can hardly think of a sadder ending to a film—a woman caged and on display, holding out her hands through the bars for us to kiss for a mere dollar. And if we are willing to pay more, she will take her robe off and we can touch one of her breasts, too.
Critics have said that Lola Montes is not as good as Madame De . . . because of its woodenness and lifelessness. For me, these attributes are precisely the point of the film. In Lola’s memories, she moves as if she were a puppet—dancing jerkily, leaning up against Ludwig’s chair like a puppet put away for the night, etc. Her death-in-life is figured this way. What gave rise to it?
Interestingly, Ophuls chose to have Martine Carol play Lola as a girl. Film writers have speculated that this is because in memory, we don’t see ourselves as we were, but as we are now, enacting memory as the present. This may be true, but I think it’s also because only through seeing the girl-Lola played by the adult Lola, which is actually a very small part of the film, and soon vanishes, can we see the differences–in movement and expression, as well as intent–between her memories of when she was a girl and those of when she is an adult. The rigid, nearly paralyzed movements of the adult Lola show us that she has not revived from, and in fact has barely survived, her heart having been broken as a vulnerable young girl–the only vivid moment she recalls. Lola is stuck in time, repeating this moment again and again.
In the scenes devoted to Lola as a girl, we discover the triangle that comprises the main action in Ophuls’ other films mentioned above, but only for the time of the flashback, which occurs near the beginning of the film. Lola recalls the ship voyage to Europe with her mother, who has misrepresented the nature of the voyage to Lola. Lola’s introduction to “love,” then, is founded on a lie. Her mother flirts and carries on, dancing with Lieutenant James. Lola discovers, through overhearing a conversation between an old Baron’s amanuensis and her mother, that her mother is also essentially her pimp, selling Lola to the Baron, who in return, at his death–which the mother assumes will be soon–will leave his estate to the mother. Lola escapes to the ship’s deck, only to find herself “at sea” with nothing to protect her but the night sky, stars, and a blanket of fog. Impulsively, but also as an act of revenge, she offers herself in marriage to her mother’s suitor, the Lieutenant, so she can flee her fate at the hands of the Baron and her mother. This is the definitive moment at which her desire, which has not had a chance to take root, let alone bloom, is halted. In a tableau vivant, we see her and the Baron begin to kiss, and an iris closes around them in embrace, as if they had become figures in a painting or a photograph, rather than a moving picture. This is Ophuls’ memorial, a shrine to mark the death of woman’s desire, how it is killed by patriarchal systems.
Lola’s narcissistic mother, thoroughly assimilated to “the way things work,” meaning to patriarchal codes and modes of operation, deeply betrays and exploits Lola. From here on, Lola is a puppet, acting out this drama/trauma, and the film becomes about her stasis. Ophuls does away with the triangle early on: we never even see the old Baron; the Lieutenant, cast as her rescuer, turns out to be a 19th-century Smith Ohlrig, an abusive alcoholic and womanizer (recalling Stefan Brand as well), from whom Lola flees.
The rest of the film, in the flashback ring, is about her flight. She flees from one lover to another, and even prepares for flight by having her own carriage follow her wherever she goes. There is no hint of desire or even spontaneity; Lola only acts as if she desires (becoming an expensive prostitute–a “courtesan”–ripping open her bodice in front of King Ludwig I, interrupting her puppet-like public dance to make a spectacle of her feigned indignation at being betrayed, etc.). This is how Lola has learned to “move” in the world, by becoming a certain kind of spectacular object, which in one sense, is Ophuls’ critique of the way women are figured in Hollywood film. In another, in color and wide-screen spectacle, Lola Montes is a critique of cinema in the era of the death of aesthetic patience. More often than not in Ophuls’ films, woman is cinema, nowhere more tragically disfigured than in Lola.