Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Lola Montès (1955): Is It Really "the Greatest Film of All Time?"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lola Montès (1955): Is It Really "the Greatest Film of All Time?"

by Tony Dayoub

Before I discuss Lola Montès, allow me to digress. An oft-discussed topic among cinephiliacs (where did I see it this week, Wonders in the Dark?) is the difference—if there is one—between a film labeled "best" or "favorite." As in, "Citizen Kane is the best film of all time," or, "My all-time favorite film is There Will Be Blood." I am of the opinion that "best" and "favorite" are two different animals. A movie which I label "best" is a film displaying artistic, intellectual, and technical virtuosity, yet it might not engage me on an emotional level. The White Ribbon (2009) is a great example of a film which I am happy to list as one of the best of this decade, but it leaves me cold... as it is meant to. It certainly isn't a "favorite" which I would choose to see over and over again. No, a "favorite" is a movie which I enjoy watching, sometimes even obsessively, despite any flaws in its execution. For example, David Lynch's visually stylish Lost Highway (1997) is a film which is certainly not one of his best, tends to be almost parodic in its excesses, yet appeals to me for the way it hearken's back to another noir I love, Kiss Me Deadly. Get it?

Well, as it so happens, the two films which are constantly vying for the number one spot on my own personal list of such things happen to be films I consider both "best" and "favorite," Bertolucci's Il Conformista (The Conformist) (1970) and Coppola's The Godfather Part II (1974). They each have a complex nonlinear narrative structure, make thematic associations through montage—a visual device unique to the moving picture—are impeccably cast, perfectly written with dialogue that is not only colloquial to the characters but resonant within the subtextual framework... the list of their outstanding qualities goes on. They are also movies which I engage with so greatly that even after multiple viewings, I like spending time in their respective worlds. Food for the mind AND for the soul, these movies are.

Watching the upcoming Criterion release of Max Ophuls final film, Lola Montès, at first glance a film which doesn't resemble either of my two favorites, is what got me to thinking about how I classify movies. A subscriber to auteurism like myself couldn't ignore its godfather, film critic Andrew Sarris and his one-time declaration, "Lola Montès is, in my unhumble opinion, the greatest film of all time.” Wow. He really sidestepped the whole "best" vs. "favorite" argument by using the all-encompassing "greatest." Why hadn't I seen this movie yet? The reasons are many as to how this gorgeous film got lost over the years, and easy to find if you search the internet. But as for me personally, fate got in the way of my being able to see it in 2008, the first year I was invited to cover the New York Film Festival where this restored version had its premiere.

Lola Montès explores the historical figure—an Englishwoman (Martine Carol) who adopted the titular stage name gaining some fame for her dancing and even greater fame for her numerous affairs with such luminaries as composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook, looking like an old world Victor Garber)—through an unusual framing device. Peter Ustinov assays the role of the Ringmaster at a travelling circus in which Lola performs in a living reenactment of her life story. Each time an anecdote is related to the rapt audience, the viewer is drawn into a flashback by the film's own meta-ringmaster, Ophuls.

On a purely visual level the film, Ophuls' first in color and Cinemascope, is spectacular to behold. Every frame is lushly appointed with color, and a gilded luxury densely and kaleidoscopically layered onto the image. Not one shot is free of any refractive, prismatic, or reflective effect. Actors are frequently blocked by columns, architectural grating, stained glass, or gauzy color curtains throughout, all effects which separate us from the events of Lola's life unfolding before us while paradoxically creating the intimacy of being in the same room as her, voyeuristically peering into her most private moments like some celebrity stalker. Adding to this peculiar contradiction is Ophuls' refusal to ever shoot any closeups within the flashbacks, a decision which realistically approximates our own natural vision's propensity to focus on medium to wide tableaux, again keeping us at an unusual distance cinematically while still preserving the you-are-there perception.

The viewer's perspective shifts almost imperceptibly throughout the circus setting, the film's present as it were, from one of spectator when Ophuls' constantly moving camera tracks Lola from her audience's point of view to one of omniscient voyeur when the camera follows her backstage, where every cinematographic obstruction hints at the loneliness and confinement the character endures in her self-imposed isolation. Say what you will about Martine Carol's limited range, it is perfectly harnessed by Ophuls to convey the character of a chameleon, one who has voided her personality to become all things to all men, a sexual object defined by whatever male is at her side, but strangely devoid of emotion in all but two key moments in the film. Carol's vacant expression and Ophuls' visual imprisonment of Lola fuse in the film's last tracking shot to form one of the most disturbing final shots I can remember from a movie of that period, over which he brings down a theatrical curtain, the final implicit statement that the viewer is tied to Lola's objectification as greatly as her filmic male admirers are.

All of this analysis should betray the fact that though Lola Montès stimulated me on an intellectual level, on an emotional level it failed to connect, although I'm not sure that wasn't Ophuls' intention. With all due respect to Mr. Sarris, Lola Montès has made it onto my all-time top 10. However, it has not yet supplanted either The Conformist or The Godfather Part II as a favorite. True, Lola Montès ends up having more in common with each of the aforementioned films than one would think. Each of the film's respective protagonists end up in a form of self-imposed exile. Each of the films share a novelistic, non-linear approach to storytelling. Each of the films are sprawling in their use of the external (worldwide physical locations) to focus narrowly on the internal (the motives of one individual).

But Lola Montès' technical virtuosity far surpasses that of the other two films. Where The Conformist and The Godfather Part II are dependent on montage to develop their theses, Lola Montès trusts its audience to make its way through its mise en scéne to get its subtext across. So I'm not entirely certain that with subsequent viewings I won't become more comfortable with its spectacle on a visceral level. Its unpredictable ending makes one want to rethink the whole movie. Given time, Lola Montès might just inch her way up to the very top of my own list of favorites.

Lola Montès is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, Tuesday, February 16th.


Jeffrey Goodman said...

Tony, I like this distinction of "best" and "favorite", as well. And I think you define it as well as anywhere I've ever seen with this sentence:

"A movie which I label "best" is a film displaying artistic, intellectual, and technical virtuosity, yet it might not engage me on an emotional level."

I've always liked the distinction because at times I've chased after "classics" only to leave uninspired. Inversely, some of the movies that have impacted me most have been critically seen as inferior to some of these so-called best films. So for me it's useful.

I also like the distinction because it validates personal taste, which at the end of the day I think is (if not more) as important as critically established taste. I think there should be a level of great importance placed on instinct and emotional response. Otherwise, we probably end up with a canon of purely cerebral films, and I think that's depriving us of one of the real joys of movies and their ability to entertain us.

Tony Dayoub said...

I would also add that when you sees an obviously great movie that leaves you cold you shouldn't write it off. You should reflect on it for a while and revisit it in the future.

I'm not directing this at you, Jeffrey. Just continuing along the conversation you started.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

Tony, I agree with this. Do you think then it's okay if upon revisiting, if it still leaves you cold, then you should accept it as a so-called "great film" that simply doesn't speak to you?

I would also say that when a so-called "great film" doesn't affect you, that's okay. And, when that happens, which I would only imagine it would happen to all of us at some point, one should simply acknowledge that this is a highly revered film, but it just didn't have a great impact on them personally.

All this to say (and it sounds like we totally agree on this), I think it's okay for someone's favorites to be completely different from an already established canon of what is great.

Tony Dayoub said...

I would say that there are some films that one has to keep working at understanding. Kubrick is one director who many don't get for a long time, and whose films grow on subsequent viewings. I've seen CITIZEN KANE more times than I can remember and yet it's only now that I'm engaging with it wholeheartedly. Probably because I'm much older (more life under my belt), and probably because I'm not as distracted by all of the techniques I had to catalog for film theory courses in school, etc.

But I would agree with the rest of your assessment. Some great movies will always leave you cold. I am a huge fan of David Lynch. I consider MULHOLLAND DRIVE and INLAND EMPIRE among his best movies, and the best of the decade. But like I said above, I'd always rather watch LOST HIGHWAY or even (God forbid) FIRE WALK WITH ME, a deeply flawed film which I love. So there you go.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

I agree with all that you say here, Tony! I would love to see though a move in film criticism towards making people, in general, feel more comfortable and "less bad" when they simply don't respond to a so-called "great film". To me, that wouldn't threaten film history as much as open it up for more people to participate and feel comfortable with their own personal responses (I'm not directing this at you at all, by the way. More just critics' tendencies, in general, as I've experienced them.) I feel like there's a group out there that's already moving in this direction, and I love seeing that.

I recently heard Scorsese say about THE RULES OF THE GAME that it never did much for him, as it presented an upper class world that was completely foreign to him. He never disparaged the film, and his tone was even reverential. He simply had come to terms that because this film wasn't personal to him, it simply wasn't one of his favorites.

To me, Scorsese's response was a great example for dealing with this issue.

Tony Dayoub said...

Jeffrey, are you familiar with the critic Manny Farber? This guy took down a lot of cinema's sacred cows intelligently, not simply trying to be a contrarian like Armond White.

You can read my first post of what will be a series looking at his complete writings. It addresses much of what we're discussing here.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

Tony, I do know Farber. But, I must admit, I haven't read as much of his work as I'd like. That's interesting that he was arguing for some of these same things. I had no idea.

I look forward to reading your future posts on Farber! And thanks for talking about this idea of "best" versus "favorite". I think it's one that is particularly important to me, as I had to empower myself at times to give value to my own personal responses.

I thought this was a very interesting quote, too, over at "Wonders in the Dark" comments:

"...At any rate, I find the “personal reaction is all that matters” approach to be severely limited. I think it’s central to the experience, and hope that it will always be a part of criticism – certainly there’s been a tendency in academic spheres to go too far in the other direction, and lose the sense of fun cinema is capable of evoking. But if that’s the risk the university runs, perhaps the blogosphere runs another risk: sacrificing the multiple ways of enjoying or appreciating a film to the dogma of one’s own “instincts.”

Stephen said...

"I am of the opinion that "best" and "favorite" are two different animals. A movie which I label "best" is a film displaying artistic, intellectual, and technical virtuosity, yet it might not engage me on an emotional level."

Tony, I do not make any distinction because I do not see 'favourite' as being something merely emotional. Surely favourite just means the one you get the most out of - and that could be in a multitude of ways from a multitude of quarters.

For me my favourite films are the ones I consider the best and VICE VERSA. I'm glad of it because it makes things a hell of a lot easier.

I hate the idea of being embarrassed or chided for your experiences, or having to have "guilty pleasures"

Fire Walk With Me - that is a stunning film, so powerful. As I said at my place - sheer horror and staggering beauty without fetishising either. Someone left a great response at my review. He said that it does something rare and wonderful: turn us into the angels that vanish from the painting on her wall.

A fascinating discussion.

Stephen said...

I like Anton Chekhov's quote, whether he was being sincere or not:

"I divide all works into two classes: those I like and those I don't. I have no other criterion."

Tony Dayoub said...

Well Stephen, artistic absolutism is not a philosophy I subscribe to.

Continuing with the FIRE WALK WITH ME analogy, it has enough flaws that annoy me to exclude it from my "best" list. Yet I'm always drawn into it wholeheartedly every time I watch it. So it is a favorite.

Here's another analogy. There are people who I love to have a beer with. It doesn't necessarily follow that I admire them.

A deeply flawed "favorite" film can inspire simply by sparking an idea of how one could have done it better. A near-perfect "best" film can actually distance you with its very genius. They can be two distinct things.

But I'll grant you that for the most part, the two categories overlap fairly often.

PS: The term "guilty pleasure" is just a lazy shorthand in my opinion. If I like a movie, I generally don't feel guilty about it. I think the term crops up when someone wants to avoid an argument, thinking that such a label will just head it off at the pass, so to speak.

J.D. said...

Tony: I just finished watching LOLA MONTES and was blown away by it also. I don't know if it ranks up there in my top 10 but it definitely is one of those, "why haven't I seen it sooner?" films. Amazing! I would agree with your excellent review of the film and am not surprised at the negative reaction this film received back in the day. What a strange film it must've seemed back then - so ahead of its time. I really dug it's unconventional structure and insanely vibrant color scheme. Great stuff.

Sam Juliano said...

To illustrate my own way of grappling with this oft-troubling differentiation I'll attempt to put together two lists containing my "favorite" dozen films of all-time and what I see to be the greatest films of all-time. There are some overlaps of course. Beither list is in any special numerical order:

My 12 "Favorite" films of all-time:

Sansho the Baliff
Au Hasard Balthasar
City Lights
West Side Story
The Last Picture Show
Citizen Kane
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Far From Heaven
Tokyo Story
The Grapes of Wrath
The Third Man

The 12 'Greatest' Films of All-Time:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Sansho the Bailiff
Citizen Kane
City Lights
Le Regle de Jeu
Bicycle Thieves
Au Hasard Balthasar
Tokyo Story

Of course I absolutely LOVE Persona, Bicycle Thieves, Le Regle de Jeu and vertigo, but if asked the question you posed here --best or greatest--my answers would be a bit different, and essentially it's the 'emotionally' connection you broach here.

Sam Juliano said...

J.D.: I look forward to reading your review of LOLA MONTES. I love that film exceedingly but one other Ophuls I do rank higher: THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE, which came close to making either or both of the short-lists I posted on the previous comment. But I bet the Criterion blu-ray is to die for!

Vuk Radic said...

I hardly ever comment on blogs, mostly due to time constraints, but i just had to chip in here.

I studied Cinema Studies at NYU, and was always grappling with the problem of explaining the differentiation between best and favorite. i was very often strongly called out in class after declaring that a film that was universally believed to be brilliant, i didn't find as moving. And each and very time i was trying to show how I categorized, in much the same way as you did in your post, good and favorite films.

never got far with that definition. and while i always tried to employ everything i could have learned from classes in film theory and history, and did that to the teachers liking, i had no luck with getting to the students. the problem i found in a couple of conversations was a very strong sense of personal insecurity. it seems as if speaking against an established "best" film was blasphemous in some way, but no one could precisely pinpoint what i was saying that was so wrong.

so for my own sake, i made a parallel for easier understanding. The films students i was sorrounded with (and you can easily replace the students with any other person that accuses you of "art blasphemy", as they accused me), i equated to the current state of large US based daily newspapers (like for instance the NYT). An obsession of being as factual and as objective as possible, has lead the Times to what it is today - a very boring newspaper. And while it may present valid, interesting and even brilliant points (like my fellow students), the fear of being wrong is always present.

I love that Faber was mentioned in the comments, as he is one of the very few world renowned writers on film that is passionate, as well as objective in his viewings. He may praise a good film, but what good is it, if doesn't sit well with an individual.

I apologize for the length of the comment, and i am sorry if it is unclear in some bits, but it has been a long day. But to summarize, what i am trying to say is, and bear with me now, that maybe we need a certain "tabloidization" of film writing. I do not mean this in the negative connotation of yellow journalism, but more of a down to earth approach to film. To simplify - i love cars, but modern car journalism bores me to death. I can get all the facts from the internet. I adore, however, what Jeremy Clarkson has done to the genre. Maybe we need a Clarkson in the film writing world?

I'd be interested to see what other people think about this. I hope nobody will find themselves insulted by anything i just wrote, i'm just curious as to what people may think. And this seems a good place to start.

Oh, and more often than not, when people ask me who's your favorite director, i say Michael Bay. You should see the horror on peoples faces. But it makes for a fun discussion on exactly the difference between best and favorite.

cheers from Amsterdam

P.S. i've probably said some things in here that i will regret even typing and are murderously wrong. but call me out on them, since the best way i learn is from my many mistakes.

J.D. said...

Sam Juliano:

I have not seen THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE but if you speak so highly of it I should really check it out. I haven't seen nearly enough of of Ophuls' work.

Tony Dayoub said...

J.D., I enjoyed your review as well. Thanks for commenting here.

Sam, not that I didn't know this already, but your two lists seem to betray a deep humanistic streak. It also puts me to shame, since I've only seen 7 of these. Thanks for what turns out to be a great "recommendation" list.

Vuk, get yourself over to Sam's great site for a heated debate along the lines of what you discuss in your comments, prompted by Sam's ruminations on whether more credibility should be given to professional critics rather than film bloggers.

PS: Apparently, Sarris later recanted his classification of LOLA MONTES as "the greatest film of all time" in favor of THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks very much for the site reference/recommendation Tony! And yes, I'm afraid to admit I wear humanism on my sleeve. Ha! At the end of the day it's always the film that move me that I regard as the most important.