Lola Montès

Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Max Ophuls (based on the book La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent; adaptation by Annette Wademant and Max Ophuls; dialogue by Jacques Natanson)
Stars: Martine Carol (Lola Montès), Peter Ustinov (Circus Master), Anton Walbrook (Ludwig I, King of Bavaria), Henri Guisol (Horseman Maurice), Lise Delamare (Mrs. Craigie, Lola’s mother), Paulette Dubost (Josephine, the maid), Oskar Werner (Student), Jean Galland (Private Secretary), Will Quadflieg (Franz Liszt), Héléna Manson (Lieutenant James’ Sister), Germaine Delbat (Stewardess), Carl Esmond (Doctor), Jacques Fayet (Steward), Friedrich Domin (Circus Manager), Werner Finck (Wisböck)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1955
Country: France / Germany
Lola Montès Criterion Collection DVD
Lola MontèsAs a swan song for the great German director Max Ophuls, Lola Montès is a fitting testament to the enormity of his vision even as it proved to be a controversial punctuation mark on the end of his impressive career, which spanned three decades and two continents. After his triumphant return to Europe after spending several years making films in Hollywood, the expensive international coproduction Lola Montès should have been his crowning achievement, a glorious, full-color, CinemaScope romantic spectacle to cap off the five-year run he had with La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), and The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). Instead, it was a commercial and critical disaster that was unceremoniously butchered by its producers to try to recoup their money, with the only result being the possible destruction of Ophuls’ final film. Thankfully, Lola Montès has been reconstructed and restored over the years, bringing it as close as possible to the director’s original vision, and even if the film doesn’t work nearly as well as his greatest achievements, it is still a compelling testament to his artistry.

Like La ronde, the narrative in Lola Montès is structured with a highly theatrical and imminently self-conscious device, in this case a grandiose American circus directed by Peter Ustinov’s grandstanding Circus Master (a completely fictional conceit). The center of the show is the title character, Lola Montès (Martine Carol), the infamous real-life 19th-century cabaret dancer and courtesan who scandalized Bavaria with her marriage to King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), who made her a countess much to the disgust of the Bavarian people. The circus recreates her exploits “in pantomime, acrobatics, tableaux vivants, with music and dance and with the entire orchestra,” although we see most of her life unfold in a nonlinear series of flashbacks structured in concert with both Lola’s subjectivity and the ballyhoo of the fantasy circus. Given Ophuls’ tendency to romanticize the darker, contentious corners of European society (some of his most memorable characters are prostitutes), it is little surprise that he was drawn to Lola’s story, which plays as a sly undercutting of the heights of decorum in favor of passion and emotion.

The film’s central problem, however, is with its casting of French “sex siren” Martine Carol as Lola, a woman who should compel our attention, but instead merely toys with it. Carol, who was chosen by the producers for her box-office appeal, rather than her appropriateness for the role, is striking and has a definite screen presence, but she never truly captivates or convinces us that men as varied as Ludwig I and the great composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) would be drawn into her spell. Her best moments, in fact, take place in the circus framing device, which is presented as a genuine event, but feels dreamlike and unreal. In these sequences, Lola is an object to be scrutinized and questioned by the largely unseen audience, reduced from her once glorious heights in royalty to a sideshow attraction, a living doll in a dollhouse of someone else’s making. With her generally vacant stare, Carol conveys a woman not inhabiting her own skin, playing the role for the crowds in a way that is more tragic than titillating (the fact that the audience doesn’t seem to recognize this makes it all the more poignant). However, in the flashback sequences that comprise the bulk of the film, Carol never quite manages to convince us of her character’s appeal, which cuts out the center of the film and makes it difficult to fully engage.

Ophuls does his best to fill that gap with his elegant sense of style, which adorns the first-rate costume and production design with fluid, sweeping camera movements that pull us into each moment with grace and beauty. The extreme widescreen aspect ratio (CinemaScope at this time was a full 2.55:1) gives his compositions an added sense of spaciousness, and the Eastmancolor imbues each moment with a feverishness that grayscale can never quite convey. Yet, the intensified style that comes with widescreen and color almost feels like too much; it is as if Ophuls had perfected his approach in the realm of black and white and the Academy aspect ratio, and by adding to it the style becomes imbalanced, which weighs too heavily on the story and characters and keeps them from becoming anything more than narrative conceits.

Lola Montès Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set
Lola Montès is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio2.55:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 3.0 stereo
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Susan White
  • “Max Ophuls ou le plaisir de tourner,” 1965 episode of the French TV program Cinéastes de notre temps
  • Max by Marcel, documentary by Marcel Ophuls
  • Silent footage of actress Martine Carol
  • Theatrical rerelease trailer
  • Essay by film critic Gary Giddins
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 16, 2010

    You may not know it just by watching the film, but getting Lola Montès on video in this condition has been a long and winding road. The insert booklet for Criterion’s DVD contains a comprehensive discussion of the film’s history and its various versions and restorations. The version seen on this disc is the final restoration begun in 2006, which utilized a wide range of elements including the incomplete original negative, a rough cut, the original YCM black-and-white color separations, and an incomplete exhibition print. All of these sources were digitized and reconfigured to approximate as closely as possible the version of the film that debuted in December 1955 and was subsequently hacked apart by the producers into various shortened versions. The high-definition image presented here is generally outstanding, especially given the varied sources from which it was constructed. Colors are solid and generally constant, and detail is good throughout. Various digital clean-up software has ensured a consistently clean image free of dirt, debris, and marks. The clean, digitally restored three-channel soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit and edited together from the original 4-track magnetic tracks of two original CinemaScope prints (a later monaural soundtrack was used to fill in one small gap).
    Film scholar Susan White, author of The Cinema of Max Ophuls (1995), contributes an exceptionally informative screen-specific audio commentary that helps situate the film aesthetically and within its various social and institutional contexts. “Max Ophuls ou le plaisir de tourner” (53 min.) is a 1965 episode of the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps that features interviews with many of Ophuls’ collaborators, including Danielle Darrieux and Simone Simon. Max by Marcel is a new 33-minute documentary by Ophuls’ son Marcel Ophuls about his father and the making of Lola Montès, on which he worked as an assistant director. Finally, the disc includes silent film footage of Martine Carol briefly demonstrating the various glamorous hairstyles seen in the film and Rialto Pictures’ theatrical re-release trailer.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

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