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

Max Ophüls, Lola Montès, 1955, film, colour, sound, 110min (115min restored version), film still, detail
Laura Mulvey sees in Max Ophüls’s depiction of the femme fatale in Lola Montès (1955) a statement about the cinema industry and its investment in women as spectacle. 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’. 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.) But Lola is ill, her heart is worn out, and each performance brings her nearer to death.