#275. The Sins of Lola Montes (1955)

I so disliked this movie because of its subject matter and pacing but I also had a grudging, scoffing, snarky attitude about how gorgeous and opulent the whole thing is (it’s ridiculously flashy). It’s so flashy that I figured, reflexively, it must’ve made by Luciano Visconti, the Italian director who’d just dazzled me a few movies back with his opulent, tedious, insightfully and tormentedly sexual 19th century love story Senso—I didn’t Google this, didn’t see any distinctive traits, but, nonetheless, I maintained throughout Lola Montes’s entire eternal runtime, “Oh this is so Visconti,” without once stopping to appreciate the fact that the movie’s in French, not Italian, and that there was another opulent period romance outta France just a few paces back from here: Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de…

            Lola Montes is more crazily opulent than Madame de…. This was, at the time of its release, the most expensive French film ever made, with a budget of about $1.5 million. I figured this would be one of so many other such romances where I’m totally unresponsive but then look at the critical consensus and find myself swayed, by the overwhelming consensus about its flawlessness, into feeling like my opinion is wrong. Or at the very least naïve. A small consolation in this case, though, is that Roger Ebert gives it 3.5 instead of 4 stars, praising it almost exclusively for the gorgeous technical mastery of its direction. He seems as uninterested in the story as I am.

            Real quick: the frame for the story is that there’s a big fantastical circus act revolving around the libidinous life of Lola Montes, legendary for having taken more lovers than anyone in history. We see the circus act and it prompts flashbacks to her encounter with various lovers…

            The story does nothing at all for me and honestly seems to be tangled in my head with memories of Renoir’s Golden Coach—two movies so hopelessly estranged from my scope of interest I can hardly recount a detail of what goes on.            

            What did and does compel me about Lola Montes, though, is the idea of Lola herself sitting like a throned ornament at the center of a grand circus show about her life—which suggests, of course, that her life is over (the telling of a story tends to suggest its conclusion). Literal or figurative, the end of a lifestory is death.

            The recent death of biographer James Atlas, who devoted his career to that genere and celebrated the craft to no end, has had me thinking for a few days now about the study of A Life. The retrospective. Even now, at 28, I know that I’m young but I look at some of the 21 and 23 year olds in my life and find myself envying them for being at the very beginning. And it’s understandably hard for them to appreciatewhat that endless vista of potential looks and feels like because it’s all they’ve ever known. Doors haven’t really closed on them yet, but…I guess it’s cuz I’m coming up on 30 and thinking of old torrid flings, the people I’ve loved and learned from and fought with, about the sex and the philosophical all-nighters with frends and the laughs and the failures and dogs and so on, in thinking of my 20s as like a complete unit of time, I’m realizing that there really are only so many of these I’ll have in my lifetime—which is somewhat fatalistic and probably laughably dour to somebody in their 40s, but I can’t help it. I’m hung up.

            Blake Bailey wrote an incredible biography of John Cheever that I’ve read twice now, it’s one of my favorite books, and he’s currently working with a completed 1,000+ page draft of his decade-in-the-making biography of Philip Roth. He tweeted something recently about the mortal implications of his birthday. Tongue-in-cheek, but also kinda serious-sounding.

            He’s in his late 50s.

            I was shocked.

            I’d assumed just by the scope of his professional achievements that he was at least 10 years older.

            I’ve always been fascinated by the immersion of serious biographers into their subject matter. The devotion (abnegation?) of so many years of their life toward the laborious chronicling of somebody else’s life. It’s a rich, beautiful, necessary vocation but I wonder how it maybe fucks with (for better or worse) a biographer’s sense of their own life’s arc at the same time: its inexorable momentum forward toward…what? Just the grave?

            And then let’s say your project is over, you’ve written The End on the life story of your subject, and now, having digested the story of that life and others before it, you’re left to live your own.

            Lola, here in the movie, seems condemned to re-live her own life. Over and over. To be reminded of it without being able to touch it.

            Is that a fate worse than death?

            So in the sense that it sent me down a kind of anxious existential wormhole, I’ve gotta give the movie credit for ringing my bell.

            But I can’t tell you how desperately I wanted it to end.

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