1. On history and movement: “Life for me is . . . a movement,” says the movie’s Lola. “My life is whirling in my head,” she frets. Few would have been surprised if Ophuls—the bard of pictorial motion, whose camera doesn’t simply permit us to see but rather, like an enthusiastic friend, pulls us into the whirl of life—had made those statements about himself. Yet his Lola is far removed from history’s spitfire dervish. If Lola Montès is a film infatuated with motion, its heroine is often a study in motion denied. This is nothing like a conventional movie biography. It is, instead, a profound meditation on the presumptions and limitations of all biography. So much has been written about the director’s virtuosity that relatively little is said about his scrupulous treatment of truth, power, gender, compromise, the selling of the self.
2. On objectification: Carol, however, turned out to be a blessing, though admittedly this is a minority view. Her stony beauty encouraged Ophuls to objectify Lola in a way that would not have been possible with a more expressive actor. This is a film that is often intent on keeping its emotional distance. In transforming the immodestly blonde Carol into a corseted brunette, Ophuls created an image surprisingly close to portraits of the real Lola, while emphasizing the cryptic nature of sexual allure. Had he been able to hire Gina Lollobrigida, he might have given us the spider dance Lola; with Danielle Darrieux, Jeanne Moreau, or Ingrid Bergman, he might have given us a contemplative, flirtatious, commanding Lola. With Carol, he presents Lola as a prisoner of sex, and draws a cinematic line—a tracking shot, of course—between the waxen object of our curiosity and her unknowable interior life.
The real Montez gave lectures, receiving a higher fee than Dickens during their respective American tours. But she never appeared in a circus or toured as a sideshow act, unlike other notorious figures, from Robert Ford to Evelyn Nesbit to the fallen stars of today’s talk show confessionals. No, the circus is Ophuls’s inspired tour de force, its skull-like claustrophobia heightened by the absence of a single shot to place it in the larger world. We enter the big top at the start, and exit when the camera forces us backward, away from the arena, at which point a curtain shuts us out. There is no outside, no reality beyond the tent and Lola’s memory.
3. On prostitution and capitalism: The business of prostitution hovers over this film, but Ophuls makes a clear distinction between prostituting one’s body (in Ophulsian theology, a venial sin at most) and selling one’s soul (a mortal sin at least). Ophuls loves Lola, and whatever the real Lola was, his Lola is not a whore, not even a courtesan. True, she will get a palace from her Bavarian king, but the film depicts theirs as a genuine love match. Elsewhere, sex is a means of escape or an escapade in pleasure. Money does not change hands. Not until she descends, in the ringmaster’s phrase, “from kingdom to carnival,” sacrificing sexual independence and the possibility of love (however fleeting) for the commerce of show business, does she put herself on the market.
Ophuls had nothing against whores; he treats them with humor and respect in La ronde and Le plaisir. He was, however, impatient with soulless capitalism, as in his early Dutch film Comedy of Money, in which a singing ringmaster explicates corruption in the market. By 1955, Ophuls had endured his own experience with ballyhoo in Hollywood, and it is tempting to see Lola as a fragile artiste at the mercy of the machinations of callous producers.
4. On feminist autonomy and power: By beginning the flashback sequences with Liszt, the film establishes Lola as an adventuress with celebrity connections while showing that, far from being on the make, she possesses a mature sense of love’s labors and the tussle for power that is the price of emancipation—an issue played out repeatedly as she flees her mother, her husband, and Bavarian mobs. The ringmaster will later tell her: “Talent doesn’t interest me . . . only power and efficiency.”
For Ophuls’s purposes, the student shows that Lola dispenses her favors freely and inspires fierce loyalty, representing to the fraternal revolutionaries “love, freedom, everything [the conservatives] detest!”
Ophuls will not let us see Lola dance—neither her unsuccessful audition (her maid remarks, “As always, they didn’t like the bolero”) nor her royal performance (we see the king tapping his fingers in time); nor do we get to see her illustrious breasts (we get extended business about finding a needle and thread to sew up her ripped bodice). But Lola is no longer a waxen figure! The Lola who on the Riviera dashed to confront her lover’s wife now predominates, as she gallops to meet the king, and charms him with a single step of a Spanish fandango—no more than a pose, really.
5. On success and worthiness: The sixth and final movement is itself a circus trick. Lola, a ghost of her former self, must perform the climax of her act, which we learn she has been doing for an astonishing four months—astonishing because even a top acrobat in the best of health would have trouble diving from a high-wire platform onto an object no larger than a mattress. This, we are told, she has done show after show without a net. Lola is dizzy, wavering, colorless; she has no more chance of surviving her fall than Scottie does his in the preamble to Vertigo. But, of course, she does survive, promptly resurrected as a captive in the menagerie, selling kisses for a dollar, pimped out to the end. Yet can anyone doubt that Lola remains triumphant, an object of veneration for all trusting suckers everywhere, including Max Ophuls, who believed that character is a kind of talent? His camera tracks back for a hundred glorious seconds before he allows the curtain to be drawn, leaving Lola in peace, or at least enjoying the bliss of celebrity homage, until, once more, we hit “Play” and return to the big top.
6. On the film itself: It was as if Orson Welles had made a movie of Camille with Betty Grable in the lead, but with all the intricate flashbacks, visual pyrotechnics and distancing ironies of Citizen Kane.