“She is free to ‘move,’ but never escapes being trapped by whatever role she plays, whether in real life or in a performance that represents her life.”
If a standard film biography invites the viewer to empathize with its subject, the subject at the center of Lola Montes (1955) maintains her distance. Similar to the cinematic biography of Charles Foster Kane, the circus of Lola’s life (in this case, both literally and figuratively) dazzles the audience while the core of the human being at the center of the story remains out of reach. Like Kane, Lola is a vessel for spectacle and scandal, but emotionally guarded as a human being and ultimately lonely, despite ironically being the center of attention.
Lola Montes is filled with self-referential and ironic dialogue that provides clues to help the viewer unravel its mysteries. As Lola (Martine Carol) herself puts it, “life for me is . . . a movement.” On a literal level, she is attempting to connect with her lover, composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadfrieg), on terms he can understand. Superficially, her life story is presented as a series of flashbacks that resemble movements in a musical suite, and the fluid tracking shots provide a visual representation of this movement motif. More importantly, her life is a constant transition among lovers, countries, and identities. While this could be seen as “living life in the moment,” it also means that she is never rooted by a loving family, a career, or a driving passion. She also tells Liszt that “all life is coincidence,” and with that attitude, she relinquishes control over her own life to outside forces. It would seem that Lola’s “movement” through life is not guided by her own principles or desires (apart from the basic).
Before Lola is introduced to her future husband Lieutenant James (Ivan Desny), Lola is told “if he asks if you play piano, say yes . . . say yes to everything.” She simply molds herself to fit her role as a lover. Lola claims to be apolitical, and this makes her a blank slate on which the political affiliation of the man in her life becomes etched. She goes from representing power as the lover of Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook) to representing freedom from that power when she later becomes the lover of a revolutionary (Oskar Werner). Much like the circus representation of Lola, these political representations of her are just vapid fodder for the audience, and ultimately have little to do with Lola’s real self.
Lola also tells Liszt that “dreams are private . . . we can’t share them with anybody, they can be pretty embarrassing.” She keeps her dreams and inner life private for reasons known only to her (perhaps doing so would puncture her fame), and she remains ultimately unknowable to the men in her life as a result, just as she is unknowable to the audience. Although it could be argued that she is willing to sacrifice her identity for true love, her marriage to Lieutenant James, for example, is perfunctory and troubled at best. When Lola becomes fed up with James going out drinking and sleeping around, he tells her that “ours was a love match . . . you can’t escape a love match.” The marriage provides just another role for Lola, one that provides money and status but little else.
Despite all of her fame and brushes with wealth, Lola ends up being forced to sell her life story as the centerpiece of a circus attraction, like a cross between a porcelain doll and an elephant that can perform tricks. However, this is not a lonely life validated through art, but rather, simply fodder to be crassly twisted into a commodity. If there is any doubt that she has regrets of the direction her life has taken, Lola is often witnessed drowning her shame in liquor between acts. If that wasn’t enough, Lola’s doctor calls the trapeze finale “insanely dangerous,” but she is forced to put her life on the line in order to make ends meet. She is free to “move,” but never escapes being trapped by whatever role she plays, whether in real life or in a performance that represents her life.
The ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) proclaims that Lola “could have lived off men, but wanted to become a ballerina, her childhood dream.” Ironically, she does end up as a ballerina, but as a circus ballerina who mocks her own life, not as a culmination of a dream. Based on her terrible ballerina performance, it’s obvious that this was a pipe dream at best. Lola does indeed “live off men” by all accounts, at least until she is forced to sell herself to the circus. She only fits the portrait of an independent woman in order to better sell her story to female circus patrons (as the ringmaster says, “we’ll show everything women dream of doing”).
This circus framing device is an invention by director Max Ophuls and the writers, and it still seems like a timeless stand-in for the spectacle of fame. It isn’t much of a stretch to compare Lola selling her own life to the circus to today’s reality shows, where washed-up celebrities sell themselves as “real.” However, these shows are ultimately crafted (through writing and editing) to appease an audience, rather than to convey the “truth” of the subject.
As Danny Peary puts it in his book Cult Movies, Martine Carol as Lola is “bland and unable to project the inner beauty that the men Lola meets always sense in her” (210). However, Carol’s lack of inner beauty coming through fits with the idea that the character doesn’t give of herself on any meaningful level. She is, ultimately, an object of fame more than a three-dimensional character; the perfunctory center of her own life. Her inner feelings are rarely glimpsed, and usually only as tears rushing forth. If an actress played Lola with emotion and personality, it would clash with the overall structure of the film.
Quoting Peary again, this time regarding the ending; “She has been revived even in so degrading a setting as the circus, and I believe that the self-satisfied smile is a genuine expression of her feelings, as thousands of male admirers line up for the privilege of paying her tribute . . . it is her final victory” (210). However, positing this as a happy ending (even a mild one) seems to contrast sharply with all that came before. Lola herself had dropped a hint earlier with a review of a play in intermission; “it’s wonderful, but I’m afraid it will have an unhappy ending.” More tellingly, she tells Liszt “a farewell kiss is important . . . it is something to be cherished.” This contrasts ironically with the ending, as Lola ends up in a kissing booth, a living statue putting her hands out to be kissed by a line of men who have paid the requisite fee. Not only are these kisses not being “cherished,” she does not even bother to look these men in the eye. Lola does end up as a famous object of affection, but at the price of being trapped in a small booth, completely withdrawn from humanity.
Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. New York: Gramercy Books/Random House, 1998. Print.