Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Palace On the High Wire

In America, she's a circus freak, in Europe, she was a goddess. Max Ophul's 1955 film Lola Montes frames its story of the real life sexually adventurous Bavarian countess from Ireland with a fictional depiction of the woman selling her story to an American circus where a ringmaster played by Peter Ustinov narrates her escapades as she walks the tight rope, dances, and struggles to hold back tears. It's an unmistakable, and effective, satire of the morality that would condemn and devalue the woman whom the film doesn't fail to show was magnificently beautiful.

It helps to have the beautiful Martine Carol in the role and the story's further aided by gorgeous costumes, sets, and locations. As Lola, in mock indignation at her figure being insulted, rips her bodice for the King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), the scene cuts a servant outside being told to fetch a needle and thread. A long sequence of servants rushing about the breathtakingly opulent palace is simultaneously a genuine exhibition of the beauty of the place and a tease to the audience as anybody watching the movie at this point is going to be thinking about what Lola and the king are doing together while her dress is off and not murals and statues, however gorgeous.

Walbrook plays the king almost precisely like his ballet impresario from The Red Shoes, skilled a seemingly off-hand but deeply calculated authority. But he's only one of a series of lovers for Lola that also includes Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg).

Her story begins on a passenger ship where he mother sends her to sleep with strangers for the first time in a dormitory so that her mother can be alone with a lover. Shortly after, Lola fails to marry a baron her mother intended to set her up with, instead impulsively proposing to her father's adjutant, who ends up cheating on her. She leaves him and now a pattern of capricious love affairs has been set. Though by the time she meets the King of Bavaria she seems exhausted and ready to settle down. Her spiritual fatigue and bitter disappointment over the failure of this relationship is reflected in the physical illness for which her doctor begs she be allowed to perform her high dive into a trampoline with a safety net.

But she doesn't seem to regret her hedonistic way of life. She seems more crushed by the change in tone from her audience regarding her nature which she takes no shame in--from rapturous adoration to patronising and cynical voyeurism.

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