LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

Compulsion to Repeat:
Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès   

Laura Mulvey


Max OphülsLola 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 and became what would now be known as a ‘celebrity’. (1) Drawing minimally on the public performances of her later life, Ophüls set the film in a US circus where Lola (Martine Carol) has been reduced to earning her living by re-enacting, in a series of highly staged acrobatic acts, the more notorious episodes of her life. Narrated and orchestrated by the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), 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 into Lola’s memory, which replace the ultra-stylised circus performances with the verisimilitude of more conventional, cinematic drama. These scenes are constantly de-naturalised, however, by Ophüls’ 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 Liszt comes to an end, Ophüls had the inn wrapped in ‘kilometres of netting’ and the road freshly painted reddish brown every morning.) (2) But Lola is ill, her heart is worn out, and each performance brings her nearer to death.


There is a poignant parallel between Ophüls’ depiction of Lola’s struggle to survive and his own struggle with the film that he (according to Ralph Baum, his faithful but long-suffering producer) intuited would be his last. (3) Jacques Natanson, who had worked with Ophüls before and wrote the dialogues for Lola Montès, evokes the director’s state of mind during production and his reaction to the film’s disastrous critical and box-office failure:


1. Following numerous adventures across Europe, dancer and courtesan Lola Montez (1821–61, born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert) reached the summit of her notoriety in the 1840s due to her affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (he bestowed on her the title of Countess of Landsfeld). Driven from Bavaria by the 1848 Revolution (and the King’s abdication), she ultimately left Europe and moved to the US in the early 1850s. There, her fleeting relationships and public performances continued until her health rapidly deteriorated in the late 1850s.  

2. See Claude Beylie, Max Ophüls (Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1963), p. 158.

3. See ibid., p.155.


Very obviously, Max was hoping to create a masterpiece. He was inspired, possessed. A scruple stopped me from holding him back. Was I wrong?

Doubtless I was. Because of the brutal stupidity of certain critics … the general public were scared away. Ophüls was mortally wounded by this blow. With a sad smile, he said: ‘I’ll get my revenge in twenty years in the cine-clubs!’ And then, retrieving his ability to laugh, he added: ‘Unfortunately, I’ll be dead in twenty years’.

Unlike the critics, he could see the future. But fate didn’t even give him five years to see his prophecies fulfilled. Alas, he had only two. (4)





4. Ibid., p.161. Author's translation.

Lola Montès was itself a scandal: it went massively over budget and made practically nothing for Gamma Films, its production company. Although its devastating critical reception was challenged by some of the greatest directors of the time, as well as the loyal critics of the Cahiers du cinéma, the film was hacked into a shadow of itself, as its producers vainly tried to salvage something. (5) Ophüls was, of course, correct about his film’s future standing; but the stress of its production and his sadness at its reception probably hastened his premature death on 26 March 1957 at the age of 55.


Perhaps appropriately for his last film, Lola Montès has something of Ophüls’ essential European-ness built into it. The film was a co-production between Gamma Films, Unionfilms (Munich) and Florida Films (Paris) and it was made in French, German and English versions. Shot on locations in France and Germany, the film necessarily reflects the restlessness of Montès’ life (as the ringmaster says: the femme fatale is never still). But displacements and exile also marked Ophüls’ own life. He was born in the Saar, an area itself disputed between Germany and France. He worked during the 1920s in the theatre in Vienna, Frankfurt, Breslau and Berlin. The success of Liebelei in Berlin in1932 should have marked the start of a great career in German cinema, but the rise of Nazism drove him into exile in Paris, where he continued to make films where and whenever (Italy 1934 and Holland 1936) the opportunity arose, until 1941. After the fall of France, he went to Hollywood but his (intransigent) European-ness made it difficult for him to fit into the studio system; he returned to France in 1950. Throughout his career, familiar names recur across the credits of Ophüls’ films and there are a number of them in Lola Montès. The most poignant, to my mind, is Willy Eichberger, who had played Theo (one of the most charming and sympathetic of Ophüls’ characters) in Liebelei, and appears in Lola Montès as the doctor who protests at the dangerousness of Lola’s performance. Although the scene with the doctor is brief, its mise en scène (colour, props and design) is remarkable, as though it were a tribute to this actor who appeared in Ophüls’ first and last films, bracketing his career.



5. ‘Faced with the film’s failure on its first run in Paris, the distributors decided to cut their losses and re-issue the film in a shortened version, eliminating its crucial framing story and just presenting a series of loosely connected episodes from the life of the fake-Spanish (actually Irish) dancer who is the film’s protagonist. For many years the film was known, if at all, only in this mangled form.’ Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: ‘Lola Montès: A “Film Maudit”?’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 65 No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 21-24.





Lola Montès, Max Ophüls’ last film, (6) was the first that he made in colour (Eastmancolor) and CinemaScope; in it, he continued to develop certain themes that had long been close to his heart, while simultaneously making a completely new cinematic departure. To anyone who knows and loves Ophüls’ films, Lola Montès feels, at one and the same time, familiar and completely strange. He used the figure of Lola to create his most sustained reflection on the female star as spectacle and commodity, as an image for circulation and exchange, already prefigured in La signora di tutti (Everybody’s Woman, 1934) and touched on in Caught (1949). The idea of repetition, always an important theme in his work, recurs in Lola Montès as markedly as in his preceding French films, La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952) and Madame de… (1953). As the story of a femme fatale, her succession of lovers and her most notorious scandals mutate into successive re-enactments in the circus, visual motifs set up repeated patterns that weave their way across the film. Repetition is choreographed into the tableaux, so that formal devices parallel the ringmaster’s narrative. The action in the circus, for instance, is punctuated by a chorus of identical, red-uniformed male acrobats, who carry female-head-shaped collecting boxes purportedly collecting money for the salvation of fallen women. The ropes and trapezes that carry Lola and her helpers up to its highest point continuously break up the space of the tent; and some of the tableaux of Lola’s life appear in shadow play on transparent, gauze-like materials. But, in spite of his characteristic use of repetition in motif and form, and the eruption into colour of the baroque with which he has so often been associated, Lola Montès was, above all, a cinematic departure for Ophüls.


6. Ophüls died of a heart attack in a Hamburg clinic during his production of Pierre Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro (1778). He had been preparing to film Les Amants de Montparnasse (The Lovers of Montparnasse, also known as Montparnasse 19, 1958), a black-and-white film on the last year in the life of Modigliani, whose direction was taken over by Ophüls’ friend, Jacques Becker.





Over the course of his long career, Ophüls had mastered a particular cinematic style that might have seemed at odds with the constraints of the wide-screen CinemaScope format (dismissed by Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris [1963] as appropriate only for snakes and funerals). In his black-and-white cinema, Ophüls’ camera, with its forward tracking movements and gravity-defying crane shots, had been constantly mobile. While he manages in Lola Montès, almost magically, to sustain a mobile camera, he uses CinemaScope against its own grain with extraordinary inventiveness and imagination. The wide screen rarely stretches out into a coherent space, but is instead filled by a mise en scène in which the frame is organised into multiple planes and layers. Ophüls consistently creates depth and distance, countering the natural tendency of CinemaScope to emphasise width. His characters move through doorways, stand against the glass panes of a window or behind translucent panels that dislocate the screen’s coherence, dividing it into distinct spatial spheres.


In one remarkable scene at the centre of Lola Montès, Ophüls plainly lays out the film’s key theme, while his mise en scène and the characters’ choreography present, equally explicitly, a formal statement on cinema and on CinemaScope. Lola has just reached the height of her notoriety due to a scandalous episode during the summer season in Nice and ‘British bankers and French aristocrats’ line up to court her. The flashback this time comes from the ringmaster as he intones: ‘I too went to pay my respects’. And then, in Lola’s hotel suite, he begins: ‘I am a man of the circus …’, and proceeds to enumerate the various freaks he has displayed across the US. He then makes Lola a straightforward proposition:


  You know how to create a scandal and excite an audience. Throughout the world, scandal is money and in America it has no limits. Come with me. I’ll pay you top fees. You will re-enact your scandals and if there are not enough, we’ll invent a few.    

He has drawn up a contract and sits down to sign it. The scene is set in a room layered by glass panels, which enclose the characters in their own distinct but translucent spaces; points of bright red (candles, small packages, a quill pen) are dotted around the decor. The screens and panels juxtapose Lola and the ringmaster, separating them, but with a symmetry that implies the sudden mutual attraction between the two. As the ringmaster moves to screen left, behind another glass partition, to sign the contract, Lola sits for a moment at a mirror in the centre, her reflection filling the screen to the right. This moment is particularly powerful because, unlike in Ophüls’ other films, mirrors are only occasionally used as a visual motif in Lola Montès.


Looking at her reflection, Lola seems to visualise her future in the circus. She disrupts this image: she announces that she is not a circus freak, as she returns to her own space by the window. The ringmaster tells her that the contract will wait for her and he calls her ‘Lola’ on the grounds that they are both of the same profession. He then kisses her. At this moment, the edges of the screen fall into darkness, leaving the central, close-up image in something approximating the standard Academy ratio, thus creating a strange sense of a virtual and actual relation between screen formats. However, the constricted space also represents the ringmaster’s future hold over Lola; it follows him as he leaves the room, and the image only expands back to the CinemaScope format once Lola stands alone on the screen. This scene functions as a premonition of Lola’s future. She predicts that it will not be ‘for better but for worse’ that she would ever seek out the ringmaster and his contract.


Sitting flanked by the ringmaster on one side and her reflection on the other, Lola’s mirror image seems to conjure up a virtual future for her. But it also vividly evokes and extends Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts on the mirror as a site in which the virtual and the actual may coalesce to form, in his terms, the crystal-image. Furthermore, temporality is essential to this concept. Writing specifically about Ophüls, Deleuze associates the splitting of the real and the imaginary in the two-faced crystal-image with the splitting of time: time, he writes, ‘has to split the present in two heterogeneous directions, one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past’. (7) While a pre-figured future is launched in this scene, the film’s use of flashbacks, so important to Deleuze’s concept of the crystal-image, falls back into the past. He comments:





7. Gilles Deleuze, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 81.

  For what counts [in Lola Montès] is not the link between the actual and miserable present (the circus) and the recollection-image of former magnificent presents. The evocation is certainly there; but what it reveals at a deeper level is the dividing in two of time, which makes all the presents pass and makes them tend towards the circus as if their future, but also preserves all the pasts and puts them into the circus as so many virtual images in pure recollections … The dividing in two, the differentiation of the two images, actual and virtual, does not go to the limit, because the resulting circuit repeatedly takes us back from one kind to the other. There is only a vertigo, an oscillation. (8)  




8. Ibid., p. 84.

Although Lola’s mirror image is virtual to her actual figure, the mirror image is, at the same time, a shudder, a premonition of the ‘actual and miserable’, of the circus in the future, of which the ringmaster himself stands as a foreboding figuration. However, the ringmaster and the circus have already, from the film’s opening moments, been established as a narrative ‘present’: the actual out of which the flashbacks shift into the virtual, a ‘recollection-image’. In this sense, the scene in the Nice hotel offers a miniature of the wider oscillations across the film’s splitting of time. This alternation of the actual and the virtual, as Deleuze points out, is literally incarnated in Lola’s vertigo as she looks down from the top of the circus tent to the site of her probable death below.


The ringmaster sums up (‘scandal is money’, ‘you will re-enact your scandals’) the relation between female stardom, spectacle and commercial entertainment that Ophüls dramatised in the circus sequences. If celebrity depends on the repetition of sex, scandal and gossip, its value as a commodity depends on its repetition within a system of circulation and the production of a paying public. From this perspective, the oscillation between past and future in Lola Montès also relates to an economy of female sexuality. While the ringmaster’s speculative premise (in Nice) is only realised chronologically later, in Lola’s future circus performances, the flashback structure’s ‘splitting of time’ creates a ‘circuit’ across temporalities and the across the different values invested in Lola’s body. As she points out: it is only when her sexual value, as a courtesan (‘the better’), is exhausted that she will turn to the ringmaster to exploit her celebrity value (‘the worse’). The circus, of course, as an early form of mass entertainment, not yet mechanically reproduced, can only realise a pre-industrial level of circulation and commodification, but the film pre-figures the future in two ways.


First of all, the circus spectacle is mechanised through the repetitive, synchronised movements of its chorus lines and the plethora of visual tricks. Second, if the circus spectacle in Lola Montès stands for a ‘primitive’ economy of entertainment, then this past presupposes a mirroring into a future industrialised cinema: the film Lola Montès itself. In this sense, the ringmaster’s proposal splits the history of the entertainment industry. If Lola’s narrative past oscillates into her future as celebrity/spectacle, the circus itself stands as a historical past to the future medium in which the narrative ultimately materialises: the cinema. Finally, there is a movement within the film from Lola’s story to the circus spectacle to metaphor. The story of Lola’s compulsive movement from lover to lover, her desire and desire to repeat, mutates into her constantly repeated performance in the circus; out of this, Ophüls suggests the film industry’s construction of the star, marketed over and over again as object of desire for a mass audience. In the last scene of Lola Montès, with an extraordinary crane shot, Ophüls stages an allegorical avant la lettre enactment of this concept. Lola is displayed in a wooden cage and, as the ringmaster exhorts the men in his audience to pay just one dollar to kiss her hand, the shot pulls back to show an endless stream of undifferentiated male consumers conjuring up the mass audience that will transform the cinema ultimately into a major, capitalist industry.


In a much earlier film, La signora di tutti (made in Italy in 1934 for press magnate Angelo Rizzoli’s first venture into film production), Ophüls had dealt directly with the film industry and its fabrication and marketing of a beautiful young woman, Gaby Doriot (Isa Miranda), into a star. As in Lola Montès, there is a split between the story’s past and its present: similarly, flashbacks to the past show Gaby’s earlier life and her loves and, similarly, the film’s present also revolves around the star, her entertainment context and her commercial potential. But while the ringmaster exploits Lola’s notoriety, the film studio’s publicity machine has to repress and contain the eruptions of Gaby’s past into its construction of her image. Ophüls depicts, ironically, wittily and bitterly, the cinema’s institutional infrastructure, satirising an all-male hierarchy’s extreme lack of glamour as it surrounds, and ultimately depends on, the glamorous woman. The film’s first shot is an extreme close-up: a gramophone record is playing Gaby’s theme song – ‘Io sono la signora di tutti …’ (‘I am everyone’s woman…’). As Gaby’s agent bargains with a studio boss about her contract, the record is removed and replaced and, as the negotiations see-saw, she is metaphorically handed backwards and forwards between the two. Once the deal for the new film is agreed, movie posters with the name ‘Gaby Doriot’ and her iconic image emerge out of a printing press, over and over again. As Mary Ann Doane sums up succinctly, ‘the woman becomes the exemplary work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. (9)


Both Lola Montès and La signora di tutti deal with the relation between the entertainment industry and the financial structures on which it depends, ultimately personified in the figure of the ringmaster. Deleuze elegantly relates his concept of the crystal-image to films about films, suggesting that their representation of money brings time to the fore because in the cinema ‘time is money’:









9. Mary Ann Doane, ‘Remembering Women: Psychical and Historical Constructions in Film Theory’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Psychoanalysis and Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 46.

  What the film within the film expresses is this infernal circuit between the image and money, this inflation which time puts into the exchange … The film is movement but the film within the film is money, is time. The crystal-image thus receives the principle which is its foundation: endlessly relaunching exchange which is dissymmetrical, unequal and without equivalence, giving image for money, giving time for images, converting time, the transparent side, and money, the opaque side, like a spinning top on its end. And the film will be finished when there is no more money left … (10)  




10. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 78.

In Lola Montès and La signora di tutti, Ophüls dramatises the question of ‘image for money’ in the figure of the woman, the essential circuit through which money moves and becomes ‘film’ (as implied, but equally true, in the case of Lola). The actuality of her body is exchanged into money and materialises in the virtual image on the screen or in the circus ring. But in this version of ‘time is money’, the flaw, the lack of equivalence and the ultimate collapse of the circuit, is expressed in and through the woman’s relation to death. Ophüls makes this very clear in La signora di tutti.


The mechanical repetition of her name and image in the opening sequence as the posters roll off the printing press, then leads to the tragic figure of Gaby herself. On the first day of filming, an assistant director is calling:DoriotDoriotDoriot…’ (echoing the earlier mechanical repetition of her name). As he searches for her, the camera tracks around the chaotic scenes of the studio until another underling takes up the same cry of ‘DoriotDoriotDoriot …’, and the camera takes off once again. These tracking shots are picked up as her agent walks down the hotel corridor, into Gaby’s suite where the camera moves across four interior walls into her bathroom, where she lies unconscious after an attempted suicide. These extraordinary, unconventional tracking shots create a cinematic crescendo culminating with the discovery of Gaby’s body when, in her first appearance in the film, she lies suspended between life and death. It is during efforts to resuscitate her in hospital that she lives through the memories of her life in a series of flashbacks, prefiguring the relationship between past and future that is so crucial to Lola Montès.


In the later film, the question of Lola’s health runs through the whole of the circus performance, specifically articulated by the doctor with the words: ‘She has aged before her time. Her heart is worn out’. The question of her illness condenses with risk of death in the final dive, made without a safety net. This is the ringmaster’s ultimate gamble: as a showman he delivers the ultimate spectacle but he also realises that, sooner or later, ‘there will be no more money left’ …


The first mechanised and repeated images of Gaby in La signora di tutti, in which she embodies the film star as attraction, link back to the fatal attraction she exerted over the men who had loved her, the narratives of desire and loss that have marked her life. In Lola Montès, Ophüls seems to treat repetition more theoretically, linked rather to sex, spectacle and its commodification as sites of repetition-compulsion, rather than the product of trauma within a single life story. Lola seems rather to be essentialised and generalised. The difference is dramatised by the divergent endings of the two films. Gaby dies after her attempted suicide and the film ends with a shot of the printing press: the production of the ‘Gaby Doriot’ publicity posters slows down and then comes to a halt. This is the halt of death that duplicates the halt of the film’s own ending, that of its narrative and also of the strip of celluloid as the projector itself comes to a final standstill. Lola Montès could have ended with Lola’s death (which is prefigured in several ways in the story), but she lives to enact the ritual of erotic exchange in the film’s last shot.


Ophüls brings together two figurations of the inanimate in relation to Lola. He had, originally, been doubtful about the viability of Martine Carol, a star known primarily for her cleavage, who had been imposed on him by Gamma Films (along with Eastmancolor and CinemaScope). However, he uses her inherent immobility (of both expression and body) to create a powerful rhetorical figure that fuses the dead with the mechanical body. In the circus scenes, Lola is presented as drained of human vitality. For her first appearance, she is carried into the circus ring rather as life-size, wooden or plaster statues of the Virgin are carried through the streets of southern Europe on holy days. Placed in the centre of the ring she is silent, immobile and her elaborate gold dress covers her feet so that her body fuses with the gold platform on which she is sitting. Ophüls cuts from shots of this figure taken from a distance to sudden close-ups of her face, made-up like the painted features of a doll. Her figure vividly evokes the beautiful automaton of the nineteenth century, identified by Annette Michelson as ‘the phantasmatical ground of cinema itself’. (11)


Lola’s hybrid status, evoking the automaton’s illusion of life and poised in the narrative between life and death, has a metaphorical relation to the cinema itself. First of all, a strip of film consists of a repeated series of still frames that can only give the illusion of movement when projected. A film then plays over and over again for the course of its lifetime, carrying onto the screen the mechanically repeated movements of its performers who are closer, on the screen, to automata than living human beings. This destiny of repetition is usually concealed from view, as directors cloak the cinema machine in the guise of natural and human gesture and emotion. Ophüls, at the end of his life, used Lola Montès to reflect obliquely on the exploitative, squalid, financial infrastructure of the cinema he loved so much, the subordination of its stars to the mechanisms of the industry and market that produced them. Ultimately, perhaps, he was also reflecting on his own cinematic compulsion to repeat. While Lola’s mask-like features conceal the ravages of her illness, the suggestion of a life-like machine condenses with that of human mortality. Here Lola sums up the uncanny nature of the cinema: as the still frames of the celluloid strip are mechanically animated into an illusion of movement, so its ghostly human inhabitants seem to keep the dead alive, endlessly repeating gestures of life long after the death of their originals.


This most recent version of Laura Mulvey’s work on
Lola Montès appeared, in French translation, in Trafic, issue 98 (Summer 2016), pp. 35-43. It appears here with the author’s permission.


11. Annette Michelson, ‘On the Eve of the Future: The Reasonable Facsimile and the Philosophical Toy’, October, no. 29 (Summer 1984), p. 19.





© Laura Mulvey, 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.