A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955)

A commercial disaster when it was released, Ophuls's opulent and expensive last film was heavily cut in a effort to salvage it, and after the director's death a little more than a year after its premiere it suffered from neglect. But it had hugely influential admirers among the Cahiers du cinéma set, French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut, and American auteur theorists like Andrew Sarris. The persistence of the cult of Lola Montès has resulted in a restoration of the film to something like what audiences once saw (and rejected): a giddy, dreamlike tale of the rise and fall of a fabulous 19th-century courtesan, mistress to Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), among perhaps many others. Martine Carol is Lola, and her story is told by the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) of a circus in which she is the principal attraction. Ophuls pulled out all the stops, including rather garish Eastmancolor and an unusually restless use of CinemaScope. The camera, supervised by cinematographer Christian Matras, rarely stands still, meandering among the many layers of the sets designed by Jean d'Eaubonne -- every building, from the humblest inn to the most baroque castle, seems to have endless flights of stairs connecting its many stories. There is a kind of feverish fun to the whole thing, as long as you're not interested in the real Lola Montez, who didn't wind up in a cage as a long queue of circus-going men waited to kiss her. You can say it's a kind of meditation on the nature of celebrity or on the double standard that judges women's sexuality in a different way than men's. You can see Lola as a precursor of Marilyn Monroe -- the goddess of the era in which the movie was made. Or you can just sit back and experience the astonishing flow of images that Ophuls directs past us. Is it a great film? I'd be content with just calling it unique, which in an artistic medium like the movies, so dependent on the tried and true, is perhaps greatness enough.