Lola is a fiercely independent woman who is caged and made to perform on command, victim of her misogynist oppressors. Director Max Ophül’s magnum opus is a historical drama that elevates the diminutive heroine to epic proportions.
Ophül’s technical prowess becomes evident in the beautifully choreographed tracking shots and long takes, as the camera fluidly moves like the life of the passionate courtesan. Technicolor makes the grand set-designs and costumes pop from the screen lending to the narrative a dreamlike historicity, as if Lola’s past is refracted through a glass chandelier. Ophül structures the film in a series of flashbacks, as we are introduced to Lola in middle age as a performer in a circus, her life a freak show for gawking spectators. Her romances with Franz Liszt, her first marriage with a young soldier, and her life as a mistress to the King of Bavaria, are first acted out within the three ring circus, then Ophül uses a slow dissolve to each back-story.
This is Lola’s punishment for a life of feminine empowerment, her sin being the fact that she enjoyed sex and held power over men: so men must eventually diminish her potency. Lola is nearing the end of her life, a sickly woman who drinks and smokes too much, and suffers vertigo that endangers her high wire act. The suspense builds, as she desires to risk her life for the show though she still retains a modicum of dignity: her sad eyes look only towards the past.
Martine Carol imbues Lola with elegance and charm edged with a fiery determination, creating a full figured character whose presence dominates her male counterparts. Lola may get what she wants, but the men also want her! Peter Ustinov lends a charming but domineering touch to the character of the Ringmaster; at once protective of this object of desire and sympathetic to her plight. Of course, the show must go on.
Finally, Lola is resigned to selling kisses upon her delicate hands, seated in a lion’s cage: but is it to protect her…or the men?
Final Grade: (A)