Thursday, May 22, 2014

Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès

A 1955 French cult classic that 
foretold contemporary celebrity degradation

     I’ve wanted to see Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès since high school, but it never played at my college film society or urban second run art house.  TCM ran it as part of their weekly foreign film series and I recorded it thinking, well, we’ll see if it lives up to its hype.  Ophuls’ mastery of camera movement is almost unparalleled, except for Welles, Visconti, Altman, and Scorsese.  He’s one of those directors where, if the volume is muted and the subtitles ignored, the long, elegant takes are a choreography that realize the underlying themes that always involve the relationships between women and men.

Martine Carol Portraying the Life of Lola Montés
     Where initial audiences were thrown was by the circus as meta-theatrics.  Highlights from the life of Lola Montès are performed as a series of tableaux by a circus troupe performing around Lola herself, though she appears almost catatonic.  The Ringmaster introduces her and the various scenes that then flow into what seem to be actual flashbacks with the circus vanishing.  However, these historical drama sequences also demonstrate elements of theatricality (layers of balconies and stairs like opera houses, backgrounds that look like sets).  

Kris and Kim Selling Their Story
     Where the movie was ahead of its time is in focusing on a courtesan having to sell her story.  It’s akin to Reality TV ‘stars’ selling/showing their lives.  It’s a subject that without this movie’s elegant mise en scène and graceful camera work looks shoddy and feels vapid.  Hollywood has morphed into Horrywood (hoary and whorey – when movies are mainly CGI and aimed at the sensibilities of twelve year olds, then the one night when the industry tries to pat itself on the back, it has to nominate independents instead of the usual crap usually produced).  Kris Jenner treats her family like a madam and Kim is the prize courtesan of the past decade.

Peter Ustinov as the Ringmaster
     The structural framework of the circus with Peter Ustinov as the Ringmaster intercut with flashback sequences from Lola’s life foreshadows the structure of Man of La Mancha (1965) and Cabaret (1966).  Actually, this feels like a musical with all of the underscoring.  Ustinov is the one man not involved romantically with Lola, but rather as a business partner, and the menacing queeny aspect of his performance feels like the Emcee with Sally Bowles.  Oh, if only Martine Carol, a gorgeous blonde, hadn’t had to wear such a flat, dreary black wig.  Her performance builds in power between developing emotion and flat playing in the circus sequences.  Cross culturally, she has the force of an Anna Magnani, but more contained, and the tantalizing opaqueness of Kim Novak.

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