Can a woman ever be happy in a Max Ophüls film? Passion can't help Louise escape her unhappy marriage in Madame de... and the first of the three stories in Le Plaisir shows a woman who suffers because of her husband's infidelity. Lola fares no better in Lola Montès. Though she is sexually liberated and chooses the men she wants to be with, she has no more control over her life than the wives in Le Plaisir or Madame de.... The only difference is that instead of being a subject of her husband's will, she is left at the mercy of the judgement of others.
Don't worry, I'm not giving away the Lola's unfortunate fate, as this theme is made very clear in the beginning. The first scene of the film takes us inside the circus where Lola has become the main attraction; she's the scandalous dancer/courtesan who shared a bed with artists, aristocrats, bankers, and in her moment of glory, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her life is acted out with lavish choreography and trapeze artists, and at the end of the spectacle, audience members are invited to touch her for the added price of one dollar.
It's an interesting symbolic set-up, and the way I see it, it says two things about desire. First of all, it's pessimistic about female sexuality.While Lola initially passed heedlessly from lover to lover, she eventually had to realize that her search was futile. In the end, her indiscretion was what ruined her. On the other hand, I'm not sure if Ophüls attaches any blame to Lola herself. It appears that the men (or the audience) are at fault in that they are unable to recognize or acknowledge desire. In other words, they're the ones that make a big deal out of nothing, turning the commonplace into a grotesque spectacle.
Lola Montès reminded me a lot of Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1944). The circus has replaced the theater, but both span a number of years and in both of them, love and desire do not lead to happiness. Lola Montès also has the same classical style (especially in the dialogue) and elegance, even if it's more modern, extravagant, and risqué. If I use Les Enfants du Paradis as an example instead of Madame de... it's because Madame de... felt much more reserved, and dare I say, a little lifeless (Andrew Sarris would be mad). Really, there's a league of difference between Madame de... and Lola, which is surprising given that the former was shot only two years earlier (it feels much older, and not just because it's in black and white). Both of them have beautiful cinematography and fluid tracking shots. Watching Ophüls is good because you get to talk about Ophülsian camera movement in other movies and sound really knowledgeable.