L ola Montes is the ultimate bird in a gilded cage movie, though celebrated filmmaker Max Ophuls built it around a bird who had one song and couldn't really flap her wings. If you wandered into the film not knowing anything about its history or its director, now obscure beyond film schools, you would wonder whom this dazzling visual artist was. You might also lament how cruel it was for fate to have plopped an inexpressive beauty into the center of a film that is otherwise a marvel of choreography and vision. Yet you'd leave with an experience you can't shake.
Martine Carol plays the famous 19th-century dancer and courtesan of the title. Ophuls builds the movie around her showcase at an American circus that transforms her life of seduction into a spectacle a la Buffalo Bill's Wild West revues. The role is so full of melancholy and disarming comedy it calls for Greta Garbo, not Carol, a fading French paragon of 1950s Gallic glitz and glamour. Not even her box-office draw in Europe was enough to rescue the film from financial disaster in 1955 and a succession of increasingly cruel cuts. But French critic (and later director) Francois Truffaut loved it, as did America's prime champion of the auteur theory, Andrew Sarris, who called it the greatest picture ever made.
You can disagree with that assessment, as I do, and still applaud the fervor that kept this magnificent folly in people's minds and led to the luxurious restoration that lands at the Charles Theatre this week under the imprimatur of the trailblazing classic-movie distributor, Rialto Pictures. We live in an age when a flailing moviemaker like Baz Luhrmann (who alludes to Lola Montes in Moulin Rouge!) wins plaudits for Australia with an actress who seems stiffened not by indifferent talent but by Botox. Today the sins of Ophuls' Lola Montes seem venal, its accomplishments extraordinary.
Lola Montes may be more contemporary than ever because Ophuls, responding to Carol's presence, turns it into a showbiz satire of a woman who is famous for being famous. But it's also, still, refreshingly old-fashioned because it respects her emotions and personal integrity. The ringmaster, played by Peter Ustinov, wants to present her as a romantic conqueror who rose to the top as the mistress of Bavaria's King Ludwig - and stayed there until a revolution deposed her. Ophuls sees her as neither a femme fatale nor a girl who can't say no. She's a woman who keeps hoping for love that will last: "a miracle." As you grow to understand her, you feel for her.
Ophuls' signature was his graceful, gliding camerawork (James Mason once wrote a short poem about it), and you can read brilliant academic treatises about his elegant, circular, visual structures and see echoes of them in the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick. But Lola Montes isn't merely about circles within circles; even a gilded bird cage, after all, has flat slats at the bottom and a hook at the top, and rods that must be bent to form their ovals. What makes the movie so seductive to the eye (and through the eye, the heart) is its depiction of a woman bending destiny to her deepest impulses and landing in a trap of her own devising.
The ringmaster keeps her the center of attention, presenting much of her biography in a series of tableaux that whirl around her oddly reticent figure. Later, as he approaches his spectacles climax - supposedly thrilling to the circus audience, but poignant to us - he compels her to play a trapeze artist scaling dizzying heights, though her real agony and fluster become startlingly visible and audible to us and presumably to any sensitive circus fans. (We know, as they do not, that her biggest stunt could kill her.)
Ophuls doesn't restrict the extravagant circus action to one ring or two, and he doesn't describe circles within circles. The troupers run and skip into position in giddy, slashing diagonal formations. Acrobats and dancers, including "the Mammoth Circus midgets," clad in red or blue tights tumble or march around Lola. As they swing in and out of place or move onstage and off, some of the performers express sympathy for their star with subtle words and gestures, such as the maiden playing Montes as a young girl. This circus doesn't merely represent her life; it has become her life.
In the flashbacks, Carol plays Lola of all ages herself. If you take it all too literally, you may scoff at her flattened bosom as a little girl, or her inability as a performer in her prime to rouse more than a few emphatic stomps to demonstrate Lola's renown as a fiery Spanish dancer. But what's important to Lola is not her art or her celebrity, but her search for amorous contentment. Ophuls counterpoints her own reverie of life to the ringmaster's and brings both to a shattering conclusion. An audacious and heartbreaking closing shot, one of the greatest climaxes in all cinema, keeps pulling back to show a horde of men paying the ringmaster and his minions a dollar just to touch the star between the bars of her circus wagon. (Yet Ophuls simplifies nothing. The ringmaster, in his way, loves her, too; it's Lola who doesn't want him to play the romantic fool.)
The deeper pleasures of Lola Montes include Anton Walbrook's moving, world-weary performance as near-deaf, distracted Ludwig and Oskar Werner's scene-grabbing vitality as a young leftist rebel. And Georges Auric's music has a way of getting past all your hardheaded, rational defenses against lovesick melodies, the way it also does in John Huston's 1952 Moulin Rouge. But Lola Montes is most of all a movie-lover's movie. I can't think of any cineaste who couldn't find something to embrace in every single frame.