Lola Montes, by Max Ophüls (restored 1955 version)
I saw this film the other night on French television. Oh, I had watched it before, but now I was discovering the recently (2008) restored version, which conforms closely to the vision of director Max Ophüls.
This film has a tortured history. It was an complete commercial flop upon its release, and was then mangled, re-edited, in a futile attempt to make it more acceptable to 1950s audiences. Now at long last we can watch it as Ophüls meant it.
The late François Truffaut remarked that Lola Montes is reminiscent, in terms of narrative brilliance, of Citizen Kane. Quite so, and, though the films could not look more different, the similarities go well beyond the fact that they are both unorthodox biographies of real characters.
Eliza Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, better known under her stage name of Lola Montes, or Montez, was a 19th century Irish dancer and courtesan whose adventures spanned Asia, Europe, America and Australia. She had little talent for dance, but a great deal for scandal and self-publicity. She may be most famous for becoming the mistress of King Louis I of Bavaria. Their liaison was one of the causes of the 1848 Bavarian revolution and led to the King’s abdication. After that episode, her career as a high-flying courtesan came to an end, though she launched many other ventures. She did not, as in the film, end in a circus show, though the truth is hardly more glamorous: she suffered a crippling stroke and died of pneumonia in a New York boarding-house at the age of 40.
The film opens with Lola as the “star” of the circus act that presents her life as a series of live tableaux. Her beauty, intact under her tawdry make-up, has become the stuff of freak shows. The dramatic tension rests on how she gets there. We never see her physically growing up or aging. Lola, whether a teenager or reaching the end of her short life, retains throughout the film the 35-year old face of the sex symbol of 1950s French cinema, Martine Carol.
The film intermingles Lola’s present (the circus scenes) and a series of flashbacks to her real past, from the steerage cabin of the ship that brings her from India, to the splendors of her Munich palace in her heyday. Remarkably, this is never confusing, but it allows Ophuls to draw stark parallels between Lola’s past and its fanciful reenactment. We see the circus recreation of her white-and-gold wedding (below), a tableau that puts to shame all Disneyesque adaptations of fairy tales, immediately followed by scenes of her married life, where she is brutalized, at the age of 16, by her drunkard of a husband.
The film’s visuals, even on a television screen, are extraordinary, but it makes no attempt at the prettiness that smothers many a costume drama. This one turns the genre on its head. The colors are jarring, bright to the point of garishness; they hurt the eye as much as they dazzle it.
The character of Lola is not idealized, not romanticized, not even likable, but it is impossible not to feel pity and sympathy for her. The show is killing her and we watch her dying, as does the voyeuristic circus audience.
Most, if not all critics have panned Martine Carol’s performance. I could not disagree more. She gives Lola a tragic, fixed mask, and a striking dignity as she distances herself from her own public degradation, the depth of which is not revealed until the chilling final scene. I cannot imagine any other actress playing the part. Martine Carol’s life was rife with its own scandal and drama, and she died in mysterious circumstances when she was not much older than Lola. She is so close, almost too close to her subject. I am reminded of Vivien Leigh, already in the throes of mental illness, playing Blanche Dubois when she is shipped off to the asylum. The difference is that Lola has long shed any illusions as to the kindness of strangers.
Peter Ustinov is no less outstanding in the part of the circus ringmaster who engineers and oversees all of this glittering misery with falsely debonnaire vileny. He knows he is killing his star, but she is not his first, and no doubt he will find another when this one literally plunges to her death.
This is a disturbing film. The darkness of its themes is expressed through gorgeous images, and this contrast is the key to its power. Within minutes I was entranced by it, glued to the television screen. “Watch Lola Montes, and you may never watch a movie the same way again,” writes Washington Post critic John Anderson.
The DVD of the restored version is available in various formats.
And here is a tribute to Martine Carol, which contains a few images from the film: