This is a wonderful film, one that I have wanted to see for years because I have heard about it so much. A lot of the critics who have written about it are conflicted: They call it a flawed masterpiece. One of the flaws they often mention is the star, Martine Carol, shown here with her circus master, played by Peter Ustinov. One writer said that she simply projected mediocrity, not the intense sexual allure of a Garbo or Dietrich. She is criticized for being cold, lacking passion, and there are rumors that she was foisted on Ophuls by the money men. Looking at this picture, all that is a little hard to believe. Carol is stunningly beautiful, but they do have a point. She does project mediocrity in her role, and that is one of the charming and unusual things about the movie.
Lola was an adventuress, not a great artist or thinker. She was not a philosopher of les passions. She was a brash climber who knew how to exploit her beauty and sex appeal to extract vast sums of money from her lovers, although she died in near poverty. The movie does not make her into an archetype, a goddess or such, but portrays her as a, well, ordinary woman with some extraordinary endowments and a very driven personality. My favorite scene is when she first meets Ustinov, when she is near the height of her glory, i.e. before she becomes Mad Ludwig’s mistress. He comes to make a deal with her – he will take her to America to exhibit her in a circus show as The Most Scandalous Woman in the World. The housekeeper tells Lola, “He is bizarre – he scares me.” No matter, “Nobody scares me,” she remarks with a dismissive shake of her head.
He tells her she will make unimaginable amounts of money. She wants to be taken seriously as a dancer. “You cannot dance… If there are not enough scandals, we will invent more… Dance them if you must.” “I am not interested in talent, ” he tells her, “only in vitality.”
They understand each other – he orders her about, “Stand still…You smoke too much…” She obeys, for a while. Two performers, masters of the more vulgar aspects of showmanship. She refuses his offer, but he tells her it is always open, then he makes a pass at her. She refuses that too, advising him, “Don’t be a fool, like the others,” as she wipes her lipstick off of his mouth. Throughout the scene, she is stunning, and he is absolutely captivating as the calculating, cynical impresario.
In the end, she will come to him, and the entire movie is told through the device of his circus show where she is exhibited as kitsch spectacle.