Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 19, 2008 11:50 am 
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The chaste celebration of a scarlet woman

When Lola Montès was shown at the first New York Film Festival in 1963 Andrew Sarris wrote that it was the greatest film of all time and that he would stake his critical reputation on this one proposition above all others. In the 2008 NYFF Sarris will present a new immaculate restoration by the Cinematheque Francaise.

"You’re the most scandalous woman in the world," declares circus impresario Peter Ustinov to Lola. He is the last in a long line of suitors and lovers and he knows if she joins his show she’ll draw crowds not because of her skills as a dancer or acrobat but for her transcendent notoriety.

Lola Montès is one of those lush Fifties productions when color still seemed something extra--and a medium so rich it could give you a headache to watch it. It's lavishly appointed in the apotheosis of
Orphuls' overblown yet elegant romantic style of cinema, rather Forties in feeling; it must have felt quite retro at the 1963 NY festival. It's expensive, labor intensive, and ornate, and so declares itself with its framework of the circus big top show. The space is vast, shading off above into a blue haze. Dozens of differently costumed attendants including tumblers and dwarfs appear at every moment while Ustinov booms out his spiel. Best of all and still Thirties surreal, young men all in red with red nets hiding their heads dart around serving Lola and serving her up to the viewer. Countess Lola: she is the main attraction—played by Martine Carol, immaculate and chic if not as beautiful or supple as one might wish.

It takes a while before the magic works and it works best for brief moments shifting back and forth between the glitzy rituals of the big top and the over-produced, sometimes stilted episodes of Lola’s love life—which after all are not the least turbulent and in fact rather languid and polite, involving the likes of Franz Liszt (always the gentleman, and himself rather stiff). Lola and Liszt ride in a horse drawn salon like a Lucius Beebe custom train car. This is when the cigar smoking begins (perhaps inspired by George Sand?). Best for her is the interest of the King of Bavaria, another cigar smoker, who gets her to stay to have her portrait painted and chooses to do so the painter who works most slowly. When her lengthy presence brings the Kingdom to revolt she’s whisked away by the young Oscar Werner, a Bavarian 'varsity clubman turned revolutionary who will become a Latin teacher and wants Lola to forsake fame for domestic bliss with him. Nix. Then comes Ustinov, and Lola’s rapid decline, due to enjoying life too much, taking too many risks, and smoking too many Cuban cigars. A doctor determines she has a bad heart, and ought not to dive from the trapeze without a net.

What is all this about? Someone told me it’s all a metaphor for cinema. A more cynical explanation is it’s just an opportunity for Orphuls to show off all that he does best, without telling a real story with characters presented in depth. Its saving grace are its brief moments of humor, showing that it doesn't take itself seriously, and the preposterous elaborateness of sequences like the demure climax of Lola’s "audition" with the King. He questions that she’s well built, and she takes a knife and cuts open her bodice. There’s romance for you: a real bodice-ripper. The film demurely cuts away from the revelation; later it shows the portrait, which is of Lola posed like Manet’s Olympia. But the King calls for "needle and thread" ("Nadel und Faden") in German, and the order is passed on to dozens of people down to the Baviarian baroque bowels of the castle. It’s a marvelous, funny tour de force. Then finally back to the King’s salon where a seamstress is putting the finishing touches on sewing Lola’s dress back up at the neck. This is the almost surreal delight in the elaborate construction of a cinematic sequence. And always with polish and flair. Old World craftsmanship. Lola Montès isn't the greatest film of all time, but they don’t make them like this any more.

Lola is the "spotlight retrospective of the 2008 New York Flm Festival." Shown there is a "definitive new 35mm restoration," which "will be released nationally this fall by Rialto Pictures, opening Friday October 10 at Film Forum in New York and Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles. Engagements in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. follow in November, with additional cities to be rolled out in ensuing months." "The original CinemaScope ratio of 2.55:1 has also been restored (later prints were made in the narrower ratio of 2.35:1, cropping off image on the left and right of the screen), along with five minutes of long-unseen footage" (Emanuel Levy). The restoration was shown at Cannes and Telluride.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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