Since American auteurist critic Andrew Sarris declared Max Ophüls’ 1955 biopic Lola Montès to be “the greatest film of all time,” the famed director’s swansong has become almost as mythical to contemporary cineastes, as the real-life courtesan was to her 19th century admirers.
Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert of Anglo-Irish stock, Montès became the century’s most notorious and illustrious social climber. Upon dumping her Anglicized name, for the more continental Lola Montès, this daughter of a former British Ensign began one of the most infamous acts of social ascension of her age.
Marketing herself as a Spanish dancer and courtesan, Lola slept her way through the pinnacle of Europe’s cultural and political elite, including French author Alexandre Dumas, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and Bavaria's King Ludwig I. Unfortunately for Lola, "her career" as Europe's premier mistress collapsed upon Ludwig's abdication; resulting in her final years being spent entertaining working-class laborers in places as afar as Australia and California.
In the mid-1950's Lola's tragic rise and fall became the source material for a biopic by influential German director Max Ophüls, whose adaptation of Lola's life became one of the decade's most disastrous financial flops. An exceptionally expensive European production at the time, Ophüls' grandiose film became mired in controversy not only for its extravagant costs, but also for its non-linear narrative structure: a format that alienated contemporary audiences and critics, who overtly shunned the film upon its initial release.
Like Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and Fritz Lang's Metropolis before it, Lola Montès was dismantled and defiled by fearful producers. Re-cut against the director's wishes into a more conventional chronological storyline, the film circulated in various dubbed and butchered editions such as the American version entitled The Sins of Lola Montes. Over time, the film began to accrue a new status and audience in large part to an extensive critical rehabilitation undertaken by figures such as Andrew Sarris.
By the early 1980's, the film had become lionized and eulogized by critics such as Sarris and Danny Peary, with the latter including Lola Montès in his influential anthology of cult films alongside works such as Tod Browning’s Freaks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Restored versions were released in 1963 and 1968 to much fanfare. But despite matching the spirit of Ophüls' vision, these re-edited works failed to capture the director's exact outlook. Neverthless, after years of extensive research and restoration, the Cinémathèque Française produced a new version of Lola Montès in 2008. Incorporating previously lost footage and adapted according to Ophüls’ original notes, this version was given a limited circulation amongst art house and revival theatres in 2008.
Restored to its non-linear narrative structure, Lola Montès is opulence personified. The film opens in Lola’s later years, performing not for European royalty, but as the centerpiece of a ribald American circus act helmed by a slick Ringmaster portrayed by Peter Ustinov. Underneath the frolicking pageantry and fraudulent pomp of the Big Top, Lola’s performance is one with topical reverberations. She hardly dances or entertains the crowd. Motionless and frigid, Lola instead answers an assortment of garish questions about her past romances, her sex life and her current lifestyle.
Barely flinching, the impassive Lola (Martine Carol) reflects on those past loves through a series of flashbacks focusing on her dalliances with Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), Ludwig I (Anton Wallbrook) and young revolutionary student (Oskar Werner). Decadent and ornate, these colorful flashbacks are adorned in a rich, multihued vibrancy akin to an illustrated children’s fairytale book; perhaps reflecting Lola’s own Cinderella story against the backdrop of a Europe still dueling between absolutism and liberalism.
Garnished in artifice and photographic splendor, the latter in large part to Christian Matras’ elaborate and mobile use of Cinemascope, Lola Montès is a truly beautiful film, albeit a picture that feels emotionally and contextually hollow. Arguably, much of the film’s criticism has appropriately come against Martine Carol, an actress of rare beauty, but limited acting talent. Carol’s overtly wooden performance lacks the variegated depth to fill the necessary poignant complexities affecting the film’s titular character.
Carol’s depiction of Lola’s relationship to Ludwig I, a man whom Ophüls appears to imply was the love of her life, is particularly frosty and detached in large part due to Martine Carol’s stilted performance. Resultantly, there is little genuine warmth and affection transmitted across the screen. Nevertheless, the actress is not particularly aided by Ophüls awkward application of the Cinemascope format.
Frequently jostling between breath-taking grandeur and compressed closeness, Ophüls clearly appears to have had difficulty adjusting to the format’s size when addressing intimate interactions; as witnessed by his strange decision to switch to a picture box format during important personal conversations between Lola and her lovers. This stylistic decision is off-putting, as is the paucity of flash-forwards during Lola’s remembrance of Ludwig. The latter, in particular, breaks the film’s rhythm and encumbers Lola’s present-day recollections.
Like John M. Stahl, Ophüls was a pre-Sirkian “woman’s director,” who took a keen interest in problems affecting women. Although, Ophüls’ auteristic gaze was primarily focused on aristocratic women, one can see in Lola Montès, the director’s sympathetic eye towards the fairer sex. The objectification and sexual commoditization of women thematically abounds throughout Lola Montès. In an era when lower and middle-class women were restricted in their career objectives and ability to vertically change class, a woman’s sexuality was often her strongest asset. Lola’s sexuality enables her to become a celebrity simply because she has interacted with so many other famous individuals in an illicit and scandalous manner.
After years ascending using her sexual wares as her primary skill, Lola is no longer ensconced in palaces. Her later years are shown as a broken soul, used by men for her body and now marketed in a travelling circus; an ailing sideshow caged like an animal and sold to the general public as an heirloom from another era. By paying a nominal fee to see Lola, the masses gain a fleeting glimpse of celebrity and an opportunity to touch or kiss the body of a woman whose has inspired musicians, brought down empires and dazzled millionaires. In this way, Ophüls’ film is a crushing indictment of society’s fixation with celebrity and scandal.
A feast for the eyes, Lola Montès is one of cinema’s most truly vivid and decorative films. Despite a strong supporting cast including Peter Ustinov and Anton Wallbrook, the film’s perceived greatness is generally thwarted by a combination of Martine Carol’s leaden effort as Lola Montès and the film’s empty and static emotional development. Even so, when Lola Montès clicks it truly is a sight to behold. And while not the greatest film of all time, it certainly is one of the medium's most aesthetically beautiful and visually fluid.