Now that Lola Montès has been restored to its gaudy splendor, it’s easy to see how the film’s cynicism and casual amorality so enraged audiences in 1955 that nervous film executives decided to carve up their cinematic turkey, slicing and dicing Max Ophüls’s overstuffed, magnificently plumed creature and transforming it into easily digestible pablum. Lola Montès isn’t a meal that should go down easy. It’s a complicated concoction with questionable ingredients, one that threatens indigestion (and worse), but Ophüls’s last great feast should be savored gristle and all.
It was the filmmaker’s bleak outlook that triggered the savage editing (not his long running time or unconventional structure), and Lola Montès became as notorious as the real-life nineteenth century femme fatale who inspired Ophüls. His Lola (Martine Carol) is an alluring, self-made creature (like pop star Madonna) who’s known more for her love affairs and ability to court controversy than her talent as a “Spanish dancer.” During her final act, Max Ophüls envisions Lola Montès as a faded celebrity. This regal sideshow freak, star attraction at the lurid Mammoth Circus, is now approachable – for a fee.
The booming Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) conducts the show, a series of tableaux utilizing traditional circus acts to illustrate Lola’s infamous European conquests. The effect is both beautiful and bizarre, like the replicas of her head used to collect coins from the audience. With the ease of a postmodernist, Ophüls (Letter from an Unknown Woman) moves from presenting the garish circus spectacle to focusing on the backstage concerns of performers to employing a series of flashbacks that contradict and illuminate the opulent farce that’s being overseen by a carny barker in fancy dress.
In his only color film (truly eye-popping in this vibrant 2008 restoration), writer and director Max Ophüls adopts the lacquered gloss and exquisite compositions of Douglas Sirk’s high melodramas, but without the sublimated sexual hysteria. Ophüls and the Ringmaster share the same attitude toward this temptress muse: admiration and reproachfulness, expectation and protectiveness. For each man who falls under her influence, Lola serves a very specific purpose, which usually has very little to do with the needs and desires of the woman who resides beneath her exquisitely maintained facade.
Like its Latin impostor, Lola Montès doesn’t have a natural rhythm, sometimes leaping forward, sometimes dragging. Anton Walbrook’s King of Bavaria offers Lola an appealing gilded cage, but the film flounders when confined to his rarefied realm. It’s in the sweat and greasepaint of the circus that Lola really lives, where Ophüls’s astounding visuals can’t mask the pungent smell of fear.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Re-released October 4, 2008
First published in the Metro Times.
Lola Montès is available on Hulu