Monday, October 27, 2008

Movies: Lola Montes

This surreal monstrosity is more an example of pageantry than cinema, a poorly-linked series of expensive sets and costumes dominated by a less than compelling heroine and punctuated by unforgivably naïve social faux-pas that make a modern audience cringe, like white actors in blackface and midgets in the circus ring, topped off by the 19th Century insistence that a woman who sates her sexual desires at will ultimately be punished—but that is not to dismiss it. From a purely technical point of view, it’s an awesome extravaganza, with all the pomposity of a Russian novel, all the colors of your corner Bodega, captured at an almost panoramic (and I mean that in the 19th Century way) aspect ratio that might just give you a headache. But from an existential point of view (for the absence of both a compelling plot and female beauty will always leave one’s head in that sort of a philosophical centrifuge), it’s disturbingly honest and therefore upsetting.

The film is supposedly based on true events, and Lola’s life story is the kind to inspire young girls, shame old women, and dampen the jowls of men of all ages. What we see is a clunky metaphor realized: a dirt-floor circus filled with an audience of chanting thousands, who look down upon the beautiful and ballsy hussy with desire, rage, and jealousy. The ringmaster (a classic patriarchal figure who now serves as Lola’s father, lover, and pimp) narrates the heroine’s life history, beginning with her elopement with a drunken military man to escape a marriage, arranged by her mother, to an old and wealthy man when her father dies. From there, Lola takes lovers as she pleases, generating her own income by dancing (although she’s quite horrible at it—and it’s hard to decide whether she’s meant to be, or whether Martin Carol simply wasn’t screen-tested for ballet) and, it is implied, by ensuring that her lovers—including Liszt and a Bavarian King—are wealthy (when a young student tries to court her, she softens only for a moment before shunning him and the Romanticism of a happy and impoverished life).

But Ophuls shows us Lola behind the scenes as well, so that we see three Lolas: the Lola of the circus stage, surprisingly prim, proud, and resigned, not unlike Hester Prynne; the Lola of the flashbacks, carefree, sensual, with the exuberance of a pre-teen in one of those books for girls who like horses—she remains always true to herself; and finally the “real” Lola, the existential Lola, the backstage Lola, falling apart at the seams, mysteriously ill, a drunk in a cold sweat combating an endless dizzy spell. That’s the Lola who, at the film’s climax, takes the stage and climbs an impossibly high ladder, after being swung (I needn’t spell out the metaphor for able-minded readers) from hand to hand to hand between trapeze artists up into the tent’s aether. And once at the ladder’s top, her act culminates in a jump—a free-fall, really—down, which she performs each night without a safety net. This night in particular, her doctor worries, and insists that the net be used, but the ringmaster won’t allow it. And, in an existential coup de grâce that would break even Sartre’s own heart, when we expect her to plunge to sudden death, she lives, to proceed to a sideshow cage, where men line up for miles to pay a paltry sum to kiss one of the pale, limp hands she dangles through the bars, the coins collected by—you guessed it—the ringmaster.

And so even if the story drags, and the frills are grandiose, and the circus disturbs our contemporary morays, one barely needs to blink to switch out Lola for Brittney or Lindsay or any other more pedestrian looker who tries to make her way alone using only what she’s got. And while these ladies’ total complicity in their demise, fueled by lust for fun and flash, interrupts onlookers’ pity mechanisms (for we are always too consumed with desire, rage, and jealousy to empathize), their reality is ultimately as tragic as the hausfrau’s who condemns them out of said emotions. Even if Ophuls is beyond heavy-handed in conveying this, at least he doesn’t shy from an ugly reality that his 1950s audience glued their eyelids against, to the point that his studios sliced and diced his film beyond recognition.*

*My response is based on the restored version released by Rialto in 2008.

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