TOWARD THE END of Lola Montès (1955), Max Ophüls’s last and perhaps greatest film, the eponymous heroine, a nineteenth-century dancer, goes backstage at the theater in which she has just performed to meet with the king of Bavaria, whom she is attempting to seduce. The king, obviously infatuated, tries to persuade her to stay in his country under the pretext of learning more about her “revolutionary” “Spanish” dancing (in truth, she is not skilled enough to dance in the classical style), while she feigns ignorance of his intentions, insisting that she must move on for professional reasons. They are surrounded by props, flats, and other stage paraphernalia, and the king remarks that she has “won” her “place in this theater.” Just in case the viewer misses the theatricality of the interaction—they are self-consciously playing their parts in a game of erotic pursuit—Ophüls places a rope between the camera and the actors; it swings conspicuously back and forth from the rigging above.
This is not the first time Ophüls resorts to this unusual technique. In the opening scene, as the circus master and jugglers prime the audience for Lola’s entry to the ring, where she will reenact scenes from her “sensational” life, a fake crown is lowered on a rope in front of the camera. In general, Ophüls takes pains to remind the viewer of his artifice through a panoply of devices: a mise-en-scène that employs props, setting, and translucent curtains and screens to create a highly patterned image; objects that block our view of the characters; an iris that imitates a curtain opening and closing; and manifestly flat back projection and oversaturated colors.
Artificiality and performance, in other words, are major concerns of this film, both on the level of the narrative, with characters playing literal and metaphoric roles, and, more reflexively, on the level of the film itself. It arguably turns Lola’s life into a cheap spectacle, one that satisfies the prurient desire of its audience for sensation much as the circus and Lola herself do. Lola Montès is one of the most scrupulously honest films in the history of cinema, shining a light—long before political modernists of the 1960s such as Jean-Luc Godard and Nagisa Oshima—on the filmmaker’s and viewers’ willing complicity in the fabrications of the film’s characters.
And yet, not everything is inauthentic. For just as viewers can feel genuine emotions toward characters while remaining fully aware that they are fictional, so sometimes do the characters themselves exhibit real feelings. After being forced to flee Bavaria, Lola confesses that she loved the king, and from the opening moments of the film, Ophüls demonstrates that, behind the illusion of a powerful, beautiful femme fatale, there is an exhausted woman who has been made ill by her lifestyle. Pretense shades unpredictably and sometimes tragically into reality, the film seems to say, a point confirmed by its devastating final scene, in which men line up to touch Lola, now protected (and imprisoned) by bars.
Although Ophüls explores this theme to a greater or lesser extent in all of his last four films, which he made on returning to France after working in Hollywood during and immediately after the war, 1950’s La Ronde (recently released by Criterion on DVD along with Le Plasir  and The Earrings of Madame de . . . ), the first of the four, is more lighthearted. Once again, reflexivity abounds, this time in the form of a narrator who addresses the camera, which he leads onto and off the film sets. He also initiates and occasionally intervenes in the highly artificial narrative, in which a character meets (and usually makes love to) another character, who meets another character, and so on until the tenth encounters the first and the “rounds of love” are completed. Rivaling many of those who experimented with narration in modernist and postmodernist fiction, Ophüls has great fun with the narrator, showing him, for example, censoring the film by cutting out a lovemaking scene from the print with scissors, and in general the characters, as they “all dance to love’s tune,” do not suffer like Lola. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case with Ophüls himself, who died from a heart attack in March 1957 following the financial failure and subsequent reediting of Lola Montès by its producers.
Lola Montès screens at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, October 4. For more information or to buy tickets, click here. The film then runs at Film Forum in New York from October 10 to October 30. For more information, click here. La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de . . . are available now from the Criterion Collection.