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Lola Montes.

Lola Montes, adapted from a popular novel, was planned as a super-production, to be made in French, German, and English versions, with an international cast, in Cinema Scope and Eastman Colour. The film cost over 650 million francs, and was one of the biggest commercial flops of all time. (1)

As Richard Roud goes on to explain in Max Ophuls, An Index, the reasons are not difficult to find. Audiences were expecting, for the price of a film ticket within the safety of a theatre seat, to experience and be titillated by the exploits of the courtesan Lola Montes. Instead, they were subjected to a meditation (and not a flattering one) on the fears and resulting egos that were drawn to such forms of objectified entertainment. Yet despite its box office failure, French critics hailed Ophuls' last film as perhaps his greatest.

Lola Montes has been interpreted by many, including Max Ophuls himself, as an exploration of the phenomenon of celebrity: Specifically the destruction of individuals who find themselves trapped within their own celebrity. In Max Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire, Alan Larson Williams quotes Ophuls (from an interview in Arts in April of 1956) on how he found the inspiration to make Lola Montes:

When it was proposed that I do `Lola' it seemed to me that the subject was completely foreign to me. I don't like lives in which a great many things happen. At the same time, I was struck by a series of news items which, directly or indirectly, took me back to `Lola': Judy Garland's nervous breakdown, the sentimental adventures of Zsa Zsa Gabor. I meditated on the tragic brevity of careers today. The questions asked by the audience in `Lola' were inspired by certain radio programs. (2)

Williams also quotes film maker Marcel Ophuls (from an interview from the Rice University Media Centre in 1973) on why he thought his father's film was initially received so poorly by the industry as well as the public:

... I think what was not understood was that the film is a denunciation of exhibitionism in show business through show business and a denunciation of spectacle within the spectacle. It was a way for my father to react against having to make a film in Cinema Scope, in color, with Martine Carol [as Lola], and a lot of other things, when actually his original plan had been to make a very small film with a romance between an old king and his young mistress; which would have been a much more romantic and intimate film. And once he accepted all the spectacle, with a bigger budget and so forth, he quite subconsciously, I think, felt more and more like denouncing it. In that way he really was making a film against the producers, and I think they knew that all along. And that provoked a feverish, crisis atmosphere which is very much felt in the film. (3)

Marcel Ophuls' interpretation of the making of the film and its subsequent `disaster' offers some very helpful insight as to why the producers found the film so offensive. But it is through the eyes of the average 1955 movie-going audience that one begins to understand why it was so difficult for the public to embrace such a film.

Max Ophuls worked in Hollywood throughout the forties, before making Lola Montes, and was no stranger to the `climate' in which women in Hollywood were working. Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash, The Undeclared War Against American Women, has a very interesting perspective on "the silencing" of women in film, and goes on to make specific reference to the 30's, 40's and 50's:

The words of one outspoken independent woman, Mae West, provoked the reactionary Production Code of Ethics in 1934... which banned premarital sex and enforced marriage (but allowed rape scenes) on screen until the late 50's... [she wound] up as carpeting along with the other overly independent female stars of the era: Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and West were all officially declared `box office poison' in a list published by the president of Independent Theater Owners of America... [then the] studios brought in the quiet good girls. The biggest Depression female star, Shirley Temple... got the highest ratings from adult men... By the `50's, the image of womanhood surrendered had won out, its emblem the knock-kneed and whispery-voiced Marilyn Monroe... Strong women were displaced by good girls like Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee. Women were finally silenced in 50's cinema by their absence from most of the era's biggest movies, from High Noon to Shane to The Killing to Twelve Angry Men... While women were relegated to mindless how-to-catch-a-husband movies, men escaped to womanless landscapes. Against the back-escaped to womanless landscapes. Against the backdrop of war trenches and the American West, they triumphed at last -- if not over their wives then at least over the Indians and Nazis. (4)

As Opuls himself said "... I was struck by a series of [Hollywood] news items which, directly or indirectly, took me back to Lola: Judy Garland's nervous breakdown, the sentimental adventures of Zsa Zsa Gabor." (5)

Having said all of the above in an attempt to shed some light on the environment in which Lola Montes was made and received, it is of great use to now discuss John Berger's Ways of Seeing. In his discussion, Berger is basically saying that how a woman looks determines how she will be treated. And on a superficial level, one could suggest that women have honed the skill of manipulation through the internalization of their objectification, and to some extent this is true. In order to survive in a patriarchal society, women, girls, and to some extent gay men, have internalized their objectification. However, when it is suggested that perhaps manipulation of men by women is the very thing that led to the objectification of women by men, I offer the film Lola Montes to provide some insight. As Berger's article explains:

A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies ... A man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you ... By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her ... One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at ... A woman's own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. (6)

Dare I say, the same holds true for a woman's sexuality? Women have been objectified for so long, that we are now aware (subconsciously and a heartening many consciously) of our status as objects and behave accordingly (and often as not, try very hard not to). If a man has the ability to feel sexual when he experiences that which titillates him, then a woman has been socialized to feel sexual when she perceives herself to be seen as so.

Keeping in mind the climate of the 50's and the manifestations of the objectification of women, it's interesting to note that Lola Montes is most popularly referred to as a meditation on stars and their celebrity status, and the paying audience's fascination with that myth. In other words, the notion that Lola's act sells danger and excitement in a highly-controlled way that renders her not dangerous (to the audience) at all. But it goes so much deeper than that. Lola Montes was a film about a woman who acted independently, resisted being objectified, chose her lovers rather than wait to be chosen, claimed her sexuality as her own, and most importantly, behaved nothing like Sandra Dee. Throughout her adventures, the men in Lola's life tried time and again to contain and control her. After all, according to Berger, the greater a woman's perceived sexuality and independence, the greater the promise of excitement. But also, the greater the threat to men's sense of control and domination. Lola had the rare distinction of promising much sexual excitement. However, in the eyes of men, that rendered her a threatening object that must be controlled. The more Lola declared her independence and claimed her freedom, the greater the efforts to bring her under control. In the end, patriarchy succeeded. Lola, under the weight of a backlash literally the size of a Bavarian revolution, finally became exhausted in her resistance. In the end, Lola, faced with poverty, the ultimate patriarchal tool for keeping women oppressed, was forced to personify her own objectification in the form of a circus act. In fact, a rereading of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which includes the story of Shakespeare's imaginary sister, is in many ways an accurate parallel of what happened to Lola. Driven to physical illness and the ultimate in mental frustration in her attempts to assert her individuality within a patriarchal system that thwarted her at every turn, Lola, chose a slow form of suicide.

The sad part of this phenomenon is that the backlash treatment prevalent in Lola Montes still occurs today with women who proclaim their independence and particularly their sexual freedom. Madonna's Sex book, as well as her film Truth or Dare were both anticipated with much titillation. However, when they were released (particularly the book) she was crucified by the press, which was then echoed by the public. Why? Because the film, and particularly the book, did not objectify her. She was the choreographer of the fantasies. She was a participant who offered her fantasies for others to share, rather than offer herself to be shared within other's fantasies. As Madonna herself reveals:

My mistake was that I naively thought that everybody liked the same things I liked... I think men can deal with those fantasies when a man is in control of them and in charge, like your father and his magazine. It's a man's point of view, it's a man's fantasy. [The book] was my fantasy... (7)

It's interesting to note that the film Lola Montes stylistically explores the notion of women as objects simply by presenting Lola in such a way that we are always observing her. Although some of the flashbacks function as Lola's memory, only when Lola is making her potentially fatal leap at the end of the film does the camera represent her point of view.

Men want to see (the operative work here being `see', not `experience') her as beautiful, sexual, wild. She is therefore presented as that fantasy in a caged, controlled environment. And as is also true of pornography, the promise of excitement and titillation is huge, while the actual threat of having to experience a real woman in this way is non-existent.

On the other hand, however, the ring master, played by Peter Ustinov, has a huge social presence, because it is he that promises to deliver the spectacle of sexual excitement, an object exterior to himself. He enters the film brandishing a whip; immediate testimony to the promise of a wild woman who must be tamed. Lola is then introduced as "A creature a hundred times more wild than any beast in our menagerie. A monster of cruelty... with the eyes of an angel!" (Aha! So that's the fear -- sexually free women are `monsters of cruelty' disguised as angels!) Not far into this first sequence Lola "in a spirit of penitence" will donate money collected for "the relief of fallen women". Now if penitence means to feel regret for one's sins, then Lola's sins were her deviation from objectification and acting with self-directed autonomy. And what could be more explicitly symbolic than the images of Lola's head being carried about on sticks? Decapitating her makes perfect sense because the precise thing that was wrong with Lola was that she used her head to direct her body. In fact, when the audience asks Lola questions at the beginning of the film, the ring master does most of the answering, thus not permitting Lola to have a `voice'. Lola is presented entirely, and only, `to be viewed'. She's even presented on a turning pedestal, in order to facilitate a 360 degree view. At one point in the opening sequence the camera circles her `checking her out', and making it perfectly clear that she is on display. As Berger discusses, however, being on display has nothing to do with the wishes of the individual being objectified. And therein lies her personal entrapment by her public persona. Berger sums it up like this, "To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of man. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under tutelage within such a limited space." (8)

One of the aspects of the film that is most gratifying is the many layers of symbolic entrapment that serve to visually underline Lola's position. Lola is in a land (America) that is foreign to her, and in a circus; often the last stop for `freaks' and social outcasts. She is beneath a tent, surrounded by the audience, contained within the circus ring, often in a rig or in a cage, and even then on a pedestal. Lola's constantly shown caged and contained (or behind ropes and ladders when backstage) and literally behind bars at the end of the film. In fact, in the opening sequence Lola is presented to the audience entirely inanimate and objectified. She is seated in such a way that it appears she has only a torso. Her lower body, representing her sexuality, is rendered invisible. She does not move, she does not answer questions. The camera, the ring master, and the members of the troop do all the moving around her. Lola's face doesn't even change expression. She's virtually a statue, perfectly emulating Berger's theoretical object.

Just as Berger suggests using our imagination to transform the classic nude into a man, Ophuls takes the nude, in this case Lola, and turns her into a real live woman. The film makes her breathe, and by forcing the film's audience to watch her being watched, it is possible to better understand the oppression of an objectified woman. To further illustrate this, imagine yourself a fly on the wall on the set of a pornography video shoot. The director/camera person is most assuredly a man, definitely making much more money than the woman being shot. And why is she there? Fleeing a worse predicament perhaps. But above all else, she is objectified, subjugated, literally stripped of individuality, and needing the money for sure.

As for Ophuls' Lola Montes, it's quite clear that the film supports Lola's attempt at independence and presents her entrapment within the circus in a very sad manner; a very progressive idea for the period in which the film is set, and sadly enough, still an idea ahead of its time in 1955, let alone 1996.

Just look at how Ophuls presents Lola in the beginning of the film. Our first glimpse of Lola's past has her reclining in a carriage looking somewhat `masculine'. Wearing a shirt and vest with her hair slicked back and smoking, Lola is clearly set up to look like a man, symbolizing her quest for independence. In fact, in this sequence Lola tells her lover, Franz Liszt "Life for me is moving on." Spoken just like a stereotypical man. The ring master even talks about how Lola was the first woman in Europe to smoke cigars, another strictly male domain. In this first flashback, we often see Lola as if we're peeping in. First through the window of the carriage just before her lover draws the curtain shutting out our view, and second through the iron railing and veiling surrounding the bed, just before her lover leaves. The film hardly presents her as a woman on display for others. We are simply allowed to peak at her life as it is, respecting her choices and her privacy: a stark contrast to the full 360 degree view we have of her in the circus.

In a later reminiscence, Lola recollects her mother's attempt to marry her off. When preparing to meet the man her mother has arranged for her to marry, Lola tells her mother "He won't like me." Her mother answers "I sent him your portrait. He won't be disappointed." The man she is to marry is a banker, carrying the promise of wealth and prestige and power, while Lola is valued as an object of beauty, specifically for how closely she can resemble her portrait. As an expression of protest Lola rejects this marriage and exercises her own will to marry another younger, dashing, handsome man: her first autonomous move in a long career of choices that ultimately exhausts her leaving her no choice but to comply and conform. (It's interesting that Ophuls stages the `energy' of the circus act in much the same way. Lola's act begins slowly and as it progresses it becomes more of a spectacle and more exhausting, until by the end there's nothing Lola can do to surpass the previous stunt except perform a death-defying jump.) Lola chooses to leave this drunken, abusive, adulterous husband who actually says to her as she's leaving "I'd rather kill you." Translation: He'd rather kill her than lose control over her. And this is when the film begins to provide direct insight to the backlash against Lola. Because at this precise moment, the film cuts back to the circus where the ring master ironically recants this brave, decisive event in Lola's life as "Lola could not be content with family life..."

In Tivoli, Lola has an affair with the music director, not knowing he's married. When Lola finds out, she confronts the director's wife during a performance and storms off. The ring master twists this into "another notorious scandal of her own making." Nothing makes patriarchy scream "Scandalous!" more than a woman who dares stand up for herself and name her abuse. As Lola herself said to the ring master when he makes his initial offer to book her as a circus act "... I am not a scandal machine. I simply do as I please."

The entire sequence where the King arranges to commission a painting of Lola gives commentary on how men have attempted to manipulate Lola throughout her life. What is sad however, is that not one male character (except perhaps the doctor) in the circus can see what we see: how sad the `taming of Lola' really is and how poorly that reflects on the men who have come to see her.

Perhaps the most perfect link between the film Lola Montes and Berger's Ways of Seeing is when the King commissions a painting of Lola and chooses the painter who takes the longest in order to detain her. Not only is the painting an attempt to contain her, but the very creation of the painting is an attempt to contain her. The final painting of Lola is of her stretched out nude, her back to the viewer, and her head turned so that she is specifically looking at the viewer of the painting. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the painting `La Grande Odalisque', featured in Berger's article. As Berger points out about the painting "It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her... She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed." (9) In this painting commissioned by the King, Lola is forever harnessed. She is now available 24 hours a day for his pleasure alone, and not her own. In fact, never once in the film does the King concern himself with what Lola wants, only what he needs and desires. Of course this is complicated by the fact that Lola, although objectified by the King, truly cares for him, unlike the other men in her life. Which brings us right back to Berger. If one must be objectified, then let it be by the man with the most power and money and influence.

Finally, as the revolt in Bavaria begins, Lola is helped to escape by her young admirer, a student who tells her "This revolt is the work of reactionaries. You represent freedom, love, everything they detest." The student goes on to say "They want to imprison you, perhaps kill you." In the end `they' got what they wanted. Lola is literally imprisoned in her own celebrity, in the circus by her need to make a living. She is in a cage-like stage in which she remains motionless while the male spectators file past, forever imprisoned by the limitations placed on her gender by patriarchy. As the young student tells Lola as they escape Bavaria, "One mustn't fight destiny." Or as Lola adds "Or mistake one's destiny."

If Berger implies that the ultimate woman for an insecure man is in the form of an object which internalizes its objectification, then it must be that much more titillating to have the object be alive and breathing, yet caged and controlled for your viewing only. For example, in Munich, after Lola's performance at the Royal theater two men discuss her. One is going on about her exploits and talks about how she's had "42 lovers" and those are only the ones he knows about. The second man responds by saying "My dear Director, you're exaggerating. Five minutes in her company and a man goes about boasting of it. He lets people (including himself) imagine he's her lover, though he never was. We're all the same aren't we?"

And that is precisely the point. A few minutes with Lola allows one to claim her as one's own and boost one's ego by bragging about one's sexuality. In the end `they' got what they really wanted -- the chance to own Lola for the price of a circus ticket.

In a recent edition of Ms. there was an article written by a heterosexual male called "Eroticizing Equality". He talks about watching female strippers: Watching... is an exciting and erotic experience for me... But at the same time, it's a very uncomfortable one. I get a feeling when I watch her that I'm participating in a misuse of pleasure... like the turn-on I get is false. I get off easy, sitting back, paying for the show. No one ever expects me to get up on stage. (10)

Berger talks about the same thing when he discusses the painting the `Allegory of Time and Love' by Bronzino, "Her body is arranged... to display it to the man looking... to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own." (11)

What makes the film a meditation on oppression rather than being guilty of it, is how beautifully Lola is symbolized stylistically. The film itself embodies and pays tribute to the richness and multi-faceted spirit of Lola Montes. Every reminiscence is filmed in a different colour; the very rich layering of visual-containment motifs; the spectacularly visual staging of the circus show with elaborate costumes, sets and props; the many different layers of story telling; the ring master's version, Lola's memories, flashbacks that aren't Lola's memories, the actual staged show.

Having said all of the above, it makes perfect sense that the film was so vehemently opposed by so many. Even Pauline Kael's review of Lola Montes practiced the oppressive sexism and internalized objectification that the film attempts to shed some light on. She refers to Lola as "far past her prime"; calls Martine Carol "a rather dumpy little woman" and makes reference to Ophuls' "script girl". (12)

Finally, as Lola is forced to escape Bavaria she herself admits "I've lived too much, had too many adventures. Bavaria was my last chance... it's all over... all over... something has broken inside me; it's over." As she told the ring master when he first made the offer, "If you ever see me again, it will be for the worst." The persecution of her freedom and independence has finally broken her spirit, but as the circus manager says "She has to make a living." In the end, Lola took the only job she could--exploiting her exploits. The decline of her freedom led to the decline of her spirit which ultimately led to the decline of her health. And in the end, unable to cope with her lot, she attempts suicide by jumping without a net.

Here, as we finally see through Lola's eyes, death is her only way out. Without her freedom and her spirit dead, the only thing left to die is her body. But of course a successful suicide attempt would have meant that in the end she finally got to exercise her right to choose. And since this clearly is not what the film is about, Lola lives on, trapped in the persona forced upon her.

(1) Richard Roud, Max Ophuls, An Index (London: British Film Institute, 1958), pp. 39-41.

(2) Alan Larson Williams, Max Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire (New York: Arno Press, 1980), pp. 138-140.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Susan Faludi, Backlash, The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York: Doubleday, 1991), pp. 114-115.

(5) Williams, pp. 138-140.

(6) John Berger, Ways of Seeing, pp. 46 - 55.

(7) Guccione, Bob Jr. "Live to Tell" Spin, January 1996, p. 46.

(8) Berger, pp. 46-55.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Jason Schultz "Eroticizing Equality" Ms., November/December 1995, p. 58.

(11) Berger, pp. 46-55.

(12) Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982), p. 334.
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Author:Mickey Burns
Date:May 1, 1996
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