– Spring 2014

Compulsion to Repeat: Max Ophüls’s ‘Lola Montès’

Laura Mulvey

Max Ophüls, Lola Montès, 1955, film, colour, sound, 110min (115min restored version), film still, detail

Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès (1955) tells the story of the shadowy eponymous historical character, an Irish-born dancer and courtesan who achieved notoriety in the mid- nineteenth century through her scandalous love affairs, becoming what would now be known as a ‘celebrity’.1 Drawing minimally on Lola’s public performances in her later life, Ophüls set the film in a US circus where she has been reduced to earning her living by re-enacting the episodes that had made her famous in a series of highly staged acrobatic acts. Narrated and orchestrated by the ringmaster, the tableaux flamboyantly fill the space of the circus, reaching to its very top with Lola’s rise to power and fame, while a death-defying plunge down into a small net, precariously placed just above the floor of the ring, represents her fall. The tableaux trigger flashbacks to Lola’s memory, which replace the ultra-stylised circus performances with the verisimilitude of more conventional cinematic drama. These scenes are constantly denaturalised, however, by Ophüls’s extraordinary mise en scène : real-life landscapes are coloured and manipulated almost like film sets. (For instance, in order to achieve an autumnal atmosphere as Lola’s affair with Listz comes to an end, Ophüls had the inn wrapped in ‘kilometres of netting’ and the road freshly painted reddish brown every morning.)2 But Lola is ill, her heart is worn out, and each performance brings her nearer to death.

To my mind, there is

  1. Following numerous adventures across Europe, dancer and courtesan Lola Montez (1821—61, born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) reached the summit of her notoriety in the 1840s due to her affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (he bestowed on her the title Countess of Landsfeld). Driven from Bavaria by the 1848 Revolution (and the King’s abdication), she ultimately moved to the US in the early 1850s.

  2. See Claude Beylie, Max Ophüls, Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1963, p.158.

  3. See ibid., p.155.

  4. Ibid., p.161. Translation the author’s.

  5. ‘Faced with the film’s failure on its first run in Paris, the distributors decided to cut their losses and reissue the film in a shortened version, eliminating its crucial framing story and just presenting a series of loosely connected episodes from the life of the fake-Spanish (actually Irish) dancer who is the film’s protagonist. For many years the film was known, if at all, only in this mangled form.’ Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ‘Lola Montès: A “Film Maudit”’, Film Quarterly, vol.65, no.2, Winter 2011, p.21.

  6. Ophüls died of a heart attack in a Hamburg clinic during his production of Pierre Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro (1778). He had been preparing to film Les Amants de Montparnasse (The Lovers of Montparnasse, also known as Montparnasse 19, 1958), a black-and-white film on the last year of the painter Modigliani’s life, which was completed under the direction of Ophüls’s friend Jacques Becker.

  7. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (1985, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta), London: Continuum, 2005, p.81.

  8. Ibid., pp.81—82.

  9. Mary Ann Doane, ‘Remembering Women: Psychical and Historical Constructions in Film Theory’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Psychoanalysis and Cinema, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p.46.

  10. G. Deleuze, Cinema 2, op. cit., p.76.

  11. The doctor is played by Willy Eichberger, who had also appeared in Liebelei as Theo, one of the most charming of Ophüls’s characters. Although the scene with the doctor is brief, its mise en scène is remarkable as a tribute to this actor who appeared in Ophüls first and last films, bracketing his career.

  12. Annette Michelson, ‘On the Eve of the Future: The Reasonable Facsimile and the Philosophical Toy’, October, vol.29, Summer 1984, p.19.