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La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montes

"Une femme fatale ne reste jamais, ne reste nulle part." -the ringmaster of Lola Montes, to the audience.

By Mike Prokosch

MAX OPHULS' camera motions create the famous 'romanticism' of his films. The pans and traveling shots of The Exile (1947) don't just follow his characters; they give an extraordinary grace and sweep to the characters' motion through their physical surroundings. The shift from a male to a female protagonist in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) gives the film, which is told through her narration, a sense of memory which freezes certain images, and of personal isolation which somewhat dwarfs the heroine in her opulent surroundings. The relations between characters in Madame de.... (1953) feel still more detached, more based on hope and less on assured expectations. Its camera motions are so sweeping, so graceful, so continuous that one suddenly realizes a disturbing truth: Ophuls' camera motions impose a romantic way of life on his characters. Through graceful motion the characters can rise above their physical settings and live in a triumphant, artistic, romantic style. But the camera sweeping through dinners and dances traps them in the gay motion of high society, a motion of great fragility in its almost pure, reflected human forms. The motion of their figures in Ophuls' long, smooth takes being continuous, the characters are also trapped in time, locked to their very motion and change of place. Then at the end of Madame de...the heroine's lover is shot in a duel. She simply stops; Ophuls intercuts an extraordinary series of medium and long shots of her stationary figure atop a hill. With this cessation of motion, she is dead--and indeed Ophuls dissolves to a shot of her coffin. A romantic life demanded her continuous motion, and when she can longer sustain it, her position in her surroundings is fixed--and she is dead.

The heroine of Lola Montes (1955), Ophuls' last and greatest film, has stopped--yet she continues to live, by force of memory and will in an artistic creation. Hired at the end of her life by the Mammoth Circus, she is alternately forced and persuaded by its ringmaster to recall and re-enact her infamous exploits. With no more hope for love, she moves brokenly through the flashbacks and circus skits which recreate her life.

The incredible curving tracks which open Lola Montes establish first the ringmaster, then Lola at the center of the CinemaScope frame. While he walks around and pulls the camera after him, she is carried into the ring and set down in long shot--isolated in the frame and imprisoned by the camera sweeping around her. Ophuls' cutting in closer to her body, rather than tracking in (a surprising thing to do in CinemaScope, which is better adapted to long takes than to quick cutting), emphasizes her staticity, her closeness to death. But the camera motions, which express the glamor vital to the circus, generate the energy and the grace Lola needs to begin re-enacting her life.

However, at the same time that the ringmaster presents her life's extravagance, beauty, and freedom, to the audience, Lola relives its desperation and compulsion. The camera movements of the first sequence ironically express both. Outwardly they, like the gaudy props, have a vulgar splendor and sweep. Lola, staggering backstage, mutters inwardly "My past's spinning in my head."

THIS IRONIC contradiction between supposed free will but actual determinism continues throughout. The first flashback's subject--the end of Lola's affair with Frantz Lizst--couls show her perfectly free (it's constantly filled, for example, with romantic music), and therefore like the heroes of Ophuls' early films. But Ophuls' static one-shots emphasize the separateness of the two lovers. Large objects in these shots' foregrounds express their estrangement. The characters' harmonious existence depends now entirely on their restraint, their good taste (Lizst, for example, being a musician). There is no exuberant, graceful triumph over surroundings; the first time a character moves freely through the setting is when Lola walks through the empty room Lizst has left.

The return to the circus takes Lola backstage to her dressing room, a cage behind which pass actors staging her childhood. The camera follows them back and forth, passing in the middle of each are the sick, static Lola, and provoking a second flashback. In it Lola, a child still mourning her father's death, accompanies her mother aboard ship only to discover her affair with an officer. The sweeping camera movements which follow this child through the ship and express her curiosity and longing, ironically stress the objects and walls that confine her movement through the cramped lower deck. But complete imprisonment is prevented both by her smooth motion down long corridors and through crowded rooms, and by her detached, wondering viewing of objects. At the end of the sequence she flees the crowded lower deck and goes above, into the open air. The beauty of her and the camera's motions, the freedom of the space around her, is counterpointed by her entirely imaginary tie to her setting (the actual content of her relation to her surroundings: she has no real power over them, but just looks at them with a romantic longing). Thus Ophuls undercuts his most romantic, beautiful sequence by reducing its heroine's awareness to that of a child. But this undercutting is not bitter. Lola's mode of existence and understanding during her childhood has its own validity and its place in her personal development; the romantic personality Ophuls is increasingly trapped in situations must pass through this free, isolated stage.

The following two flashbacks quickly close in on her. When Lola's mother tries to marry her off, Lola flees the opera house. Her small figure has a certain amount of free space in the balcony staircases down which she runs, but is ultimately imprisoned by the larger framework. Similarly, she can flee her immediate situation only by finally tying herself more tightly: by marrying. The next sequence shows her running from her husband's mansion. A track pushes her from the living room to the entranceway, where lattices and walls immediately before and behind her head lock her tightly in close shot. A dark wall behind her (the house she's trying to leave) blocks the third side, and her husband runs before her to close off the final avenue of escape, to destroy her freedom. She bites and struggles violently is desperation.

IN THE FOLLOWING circus sequence the ringmaster recounts her progress through the world. The props represent the capitals of Europe, Lola dancing from one to another; but her broken-down body can only hobble through the successive positions of Madrid, Rome, and Warsaw. The sequence's most sweeping action is an abduction on horseback; Lola lies across the saddle as if dead. A scene change fills the frames with screens--quickly passing objects--before and behind the actors, and sets up a transition to the next flashback.

In this sequence the ironic difference between the romantic view of Lola's life the ringmaster sells to the public, and the compulsion he knows propels her, is made clear to Lola and us. Lola is living in a hotel suite cluttered with objects and dividing walls. Her first sight of the ringmaster who comes to offer her a job (which she rejects at that time) is through a window frame. This establishes an isolation from other people amounting to virtual imprisonment (though with a certain freedom of action in the deep surrounding space). In this key scene the accumulated objects seem to evoke her entire life at each turn. The characters appear at the center of the frame, bordered by these objects but backed by depth. The ringmaster dominates the scene simply through his bulk and closer position to the camera, but Lola remains independent of him in the background. The ringmaster's commands ("Stop walking like that--stay still") and his speeches destroy the illusion of free action. In a terrifying kiss the ringmaster at last discards for a moment his detached domination of the scene, covers her figure entirely (we see only his back to the camera; the two are exactly aligned in depth). Thus Ophuls reduces to its most brutal terms the subjection of women to men, a subjection which informs the entire film. The relation of these two independent artists, romantics who know the desperation to which their wills must lead them, is different from any other relation, full of the tension between likes.

Back in the circus, the ringmaster drives Lola higher and higher, till at the top of her career she begins a romance with the King of Bavaria. And in this flashback Ophuls, relenting for a moment in his detailing of determination, describes more movingly than anywhere the simultaneous freedom and compulsion, calm and desperation, of Lola's romantic life.

When Lola first meets the King his room is filled with depth, but each spot in it is exactly limted and structured by the regular columns which rise from floor to ceiling, by the regular wall-cornicing in the background, by the desk and steps which divide up the spacious floor. The two figures in this setting are not isolated, but not confined either. The integration of space and characters is perfect; its thematic parallel is the relation of these two personalities; strong yet subtle, passionate and deep yet completely controlled. Nevertheless Lola is in a desperate situation; if she fails to be hired by the Royal Theatre, she is through. At the scene's end, with nothing resolved, she backs out of the room and the frame closes in on her. Halfway through the door (and out of the picture), she stops when the King picks up her purse and gloves and brings them to her, in the act re-enlarging the surrounding space. His gesture amounts to a rescue.

After she dances several days later he meets her backstage; the space is similarly deep and filled with decorative objects (props stored from old shows). A curtain-rope swings across his figure, then on the backswing half-way across her, linking them while it indicates the fixity of his position and character (including his advanced age) and the semi-fixity, two-way pulls, or hers. He proposes to her: the rope stops swinging, motion ceases, and again the film nearly ends. But her favorable answer begins the swinging again. Both times a "miracle" has overcome the setting's threat to conquer life, the miracle of personal generosity or love.

THE FOLLOWING scenes show Lola's greatest happiness, living with the King in the grand, orderly, deep interiors of the palace. Nevertheless the other face of this setting, as of all the others, emerges at the end. A revolution against Lola's presence forces the King to leave her. The appearance of single figures -- first the Prime Minister's, then the King's, lastly hers--in the interiors, allows their orderliness to overcome the characters' free integration with them that was possible in two-shot. When only one figure is present, these spaces become oppressive, the partitions and columns assume more weight, and Lola flees. A scene in her carriage then shows her tightly boxed in, her setting (carriage walls) shaking around her as if she, of one piece with her setting, were about to fly apart.

The style and the meaning of the whole sequence of events to this point show a great development for Ophuls. The settings (in particular the use of foreground objects) and the relatively static camera and quick cutting emphasize the fixity of Lola in her settings. Ophuls does not develop a romantic personality in the abstract; he derives the meaning of her life from her changing position and motion in a setting. The inescapability of Lola's physical settings, her existence in the physical world, is the reason her ambitions are defeated--but it's also the basis of her fleeting triumph, moments in which her integration with her setting lets her feel free.

On top of this, it's essential that we are seeing flashbacks, not Lola's actual life. The "wooden" Lola of the flashbacks is at least half the circus Lola, an almost dead woman. In her memory decor assumes tremendous evocative weight, the context assumes power over the characters, and events are more nearly frozen memory-images than continuously moving points of an evolving life.

Both stylistically and thematically this fragmentation of the film's progress defeats Lola's imprisonment (present and in memory) in space. The time of Lola Montes' flashbacks is willed into being. Though in the circus she is at the end of her life physically and morally, she can by an act of art transcend her present situation, if only to relive the compulsion of her past. The effort drives her nearer death, both in the flashbacks and in the circus. The person we see developing in the two situations is a single person, Lola in the most artistic and romantic action of her life.

Nevertheless, the return to the circus finds her in her ultimate imprisonment, at the top of the circus in a cage. Her dive into a tiny net is the last necessary step in the circus act (which is also the act of re-creating her life)' the audience demands it as part of the romantic spectacle. Since it might cause her death, Lola's dive is also a potential act of suicide and escape, the most desperate of all romantic acts. At the same time the ringmaster is forcing her to jump. As he counts to three, the frame tilts around her one way and then the other; she gasps, closes her eyes, and finally bends into the frame toward the camera. Ophuls cuts to a shot that rushes straight down into the net, simulatneously fading out into blackness. Although she can now only move downward, her jump expresses her will, a final transcendence of her situation. He final route of escape is the most desperate--straight into the camera, an attempt to penetrate the ultimate surface.

The desperation of this act shows her far Ophuls' view of life has developed. His heroine's life is far less free than in his early films. Her strong will only leads her into attachments where her imprisonment becomes more and more complete, her position more and more dangerous, her strength less powerful. Ophuls breaks new ground in showing her escape in each case a transcendence of the situation, a refusal to stop or yield, that in the circus leads to her most dangerous act, re-creating her past.

I'VE DESCRIBED Lola Montes' camera motions and settings at such length not just because they are the grandest and most devasting I have ever seen. One of Ophuls' greatest triumphs is that Lola Montes, being pure film, tells us on unbelievable amount about film. Ophuls knows that the most direct, vivid possible way of showing each character's situation and relation to other characters at any moment is a visual representation. He also knows that through images he can best link the particular, moment-by-moment physical and moral situations of his characters to the moral and dramatic scheme of the entire film. His particular, momentary conception of character and dramatic situation are unified with his general view of life and conception of drama by the continuous development of the characters' situations we see on the screen. Films actually do what novels only metaphorically do to create a drama: put characters in situations. The fact that film requires mise-enscene explains everything. It also makes Lola Montes possible, for the film is above all the development of a character in physical settings. Film does exactly what the circus acts do--realize an ideal conception of drama and character, and abstract view of life. LOla Montes' flashback structure gives its mise-en-scene a stylization greater than that of any other Ophuls, and makes explicit a cinema of memory whose view of life transcends all others.

Lola MOntes will play at the Harvard Square, July 9-16. The M.I.T. Film Society will show Ophuls' Caught (1949) on July 18.

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