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Of all movies that appear here and there in lists of greatest movies of
all-time Lola Montès is the most criticized. Ranked by some as one of the 10
greatest, the movie suffers from some slow scenes and a wooden-acted
protagonist played by Martine Carol. But the overall effect is mesmerizing.
Cinema´s history isn´t made only of perfect movies.
It is the only color movie that Max Ophüls directed and the last of his career. You could only imagine the genius he would be in color films. The circus that links all the facts is a example of decadence in its greens and reds that many advertising-style filmmakers would kill for to get the same effect to show beauty. Ophüls is subtle and the most elegant director that has ever lived. He is one of the fundamental cinema masters (in the same category of Griffith, Chaplin, Eisenstein, Buñuel, Renoir, Welles, Bergman, Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder, Visconti, Mizoguchi, Truffaut, etc) and probably the less seen of them.
Lola Montès received poor critics at the time of its release but was recognized as great art and a summing up of Ophüls´ themes by the French nouvelle vague critics. You find in it some interesting comments about the way the society created by men destroy women and their paths to happiness. Ophüls was an author not a historian. He wasn´t interested in Lola as a historic figure but as a celebrity humiliated by her public just because she tried to be free. Ophüls has decided to make the movie after noticing how press used to treat the crisis of Judy Garland and Zsa Zsa Gabor affairs.
If you want to see other incredible films of the director watch to Libelei, Letter from an Unknown Woman and La Ronde.
It is not entirely fair to recommend Lola Montes so highly, or admire
it so, since even the version that screened recently at the Film Forum
in NYC, purported to be the definitive restoration, is *still* a
truncated version. The original director's cut that premiered in France
in 1955, and then to immediate withdrawal after its "disaster" of a
reception at 140 minutes, is no longer available. At the least, it's a
saving grace that so much has been saved in this 115 minute cut,
considering how many version there are and how they vary with the
And, for Pete sake, if by some chance you can see it on the big-screen (it's soon to leave the Film Forum for its *second* run following the re-release last October and its re-premiere at the NYFF), do so. The filmmaker, Max Ophuls, in what was his unintentional swan song- he died at 55- shot the hell out of this picture, with director of photography Christian Matras taking the 2:35:1 frame with new Eastmancolor by the horns and shaking it for all it could be worth within the context of a "vibrant" 19th century costume melodrama bio-pic. The colors all jump off so splendidly, with such a force that compels one to not have too long of a blink, as to do so would be to miss on little surprises, little things that Ophuls uses in his frame which he careens and swivels and moves around with the freedom of a curious, pleasantly intoxicated fowl. It's one of the first masterpieces of the widescreen color film.
But it's not just a great film in technical terms. That would be too easy perhaps for Ophuls, who uses this backdrop of the sweeping and sensational to pierce through other deeper things going on with the characters. In Lola Montes his character is someone who re-lives what has happened in her relatively short life (relatively since she's not really "old" in the sense of being tucked away from the public's gaze) as a main attraction in a French circus.
She's an object first and person second in this context, which as one can imagine bustles and throbs with excitement and fun as only something of a cousin to Fellini could be. And yet as a person she's had quite a journey to where she's at: from aristocratic daughter given away to a marriage she has to run away from (unfaithful husband, figures with a wife who is about as beautiful a being as could be in the immediate vicinity), then becomes a ballerina (her childhood dream), and then... well, a topic of gossip and scandal, such as romancing a conductor, all ending in Bavaria with her hopes of possibly settling down squandered for good. Hence the circus gig.
It's a story that's given that same kaleidoscopic view as in Citizen Kane, but this time with the twist that the protagonist isn't given the sort of "luxury" of already being dead as the story of a life is sifted through and given a LARGER-than-LIFE context. Lola's story is a spectacle, sometimes farce, sometimes legend, sometimes one of those too-much-to-believe sagas that keeps those glued to their seats while Lola also entertains with trapeze work! And yet under the blue lights, under the costume changes and other mock-ups and even the Q&A sessions that the ringmaster holds with the audience and Lola, the soul of this woman is about as "there" as a near-empty gas tank. She may still be alive, but it's a kind of limbo that would be too insane if it weren't true and played out to full spectacle and extravaganza.
As said, this is a work of true technical mastery, and there's one amazing camera move or one amazing little direction (I just smiled ear to ear seeing in the opening how the circus performers rolled out, and it stayed for a solid five minutes). But, too, Ophuls has an engaging, wonderful actress on top of having a complete knockout visually: Martine Carol, who I'm not sure I've seen outside of this film, pulls out a performance that wavers between weepy, flustered, driven, elegant, tortured, calm and hiding back hysteria. It's half diva and half substantially undermined human soul, and she pulls it off like it's the performance of a life. Good marks also go to Peter Ustinov as the Ringmaster, chugging along through a script that he knows almost too well (we get very amusing asides with one of the "little" people in the red costumes trying to get their change back from him mid-act), and the actor who played the Bavarian king. In Ophuls hands, they're not just other pieces of the set, but actors who work so diligently to make this all one cohesive piece.
And, really, that's what makes Lola Montes ultimately so remarkable. Ophuls has moments of melodrama, maybe so much so that one will have to really love costume-period-melodrama flicks to really appreciate it (I actually don't usually, this is an exception), and at the same time they all work as part of this story about what lies behind the pomp and circumstance. You can get lost from time to time in this movie, and it's thrilling to get wrapped up in it. And as well as an artistic achievement of considerable proportions, it's a really fun movie to boot.
The 140 min version intended for international release (UK and USA) was
never shown; one can only guess of the enormous power it had,
considering that even the production cut released in Paris for the
world premiere caused public riots and the police intervention.
Max Ophüls considered the German version the director's cut, and we are fortunate that mecenas and technical people worked together to restore to its best color and sound the 110 min version. The director presents the story in a logic, not chronological order, using the voice of an American Ring Master (Peter Ustinov in one of his best characters) to describe the life of Maria Dolores Elisa Regina Gilbert (an actual person, who lived from 1818 to 1861), who brought herself up from a poor childhood, through torrid passions with musicians, painters, revolutionaries and nobility (she was titled Countess of Lansfeld by Ludwig I, King of Bavaria.
I saw once the English dubbed version, cut to 90m long (or rather 87...), and though the acting and drama were there, they were clobbered by enormous technical defaults, poor sound and scratched picture. Now I've seen the restored version, and I was riveted to the film during each of its 110 min. Martine Carol speaking German when needed, but falling back to her French language when passion or anger naturally lead her to, is so nice to hear. Peter Ustinov is at his best in the scene where he tries to convince the daring but reluctant ruined Countess to go with him to North America, to play in a Circus; she refuses the huge amounts he is offering, but he leaves her a cheque anyway, and remarks dryly: "In America all scandals can be sold - Lola!" Later, when he gives the order that will eventually put an end to her career, and life (33 year old, with a tired heart, the doctor says), there rings of death in his trembling voice, as we see, like the gallant Lola up there in the trapeze, the black void.
"Gentlemen and boys over 16, come in now... You can see it all now, all that has not been ever seen in a circus show, inside the tent. It's only one dollar... only one dollar... only one dollar..." And the voice goes on and one, and the crowd gets thicker and thicker; men in black tie, and jobless chums, shoulder to shoulder for only one dollar; and the voice goes on, as the show must go on. Forever there must be more bright colors, blaring trumpets, funny animals, scandalous lives to expose. Was THAT the end?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With 1955's "Lola Montes" director Max Ophuls concluded his long
career. He died shortly afterward. In many ways, this is his greatest
film. The first film he used Technicolor was also his last. The
cinematography, at its time, and in France especially, was new and
innovative. By the mid 50's Technicolor was all the rage. However, only
few directors could make a colorful film dramatic and not just fluff.
Ophuls adapted the historic account of 19th century world famous
courtesan Lola Montes to a fictionalized drama of her life. In the end
of her life, Lola Montes is the feature attraction at a circus, headed
by the money-hungry P.T. Barnum-like ringmaster played by the excellent
actor Peter Ustinov. Through a series of panoramas and stunts her life
is retold. The movie is mostly her flashbacks, though not necessarily
in chronological order. She recalls how her mother sold her to a man
she did not love. She ended that marriage and became a
dancer/courtesan. A sex icon of her time, she drew many famous lovers.
Among these was the mesmerizing pianist Franz Liszt, who rocked the
world of classical music in the 19th century. Liszt abandons Lola who
does not take long in taking up new lovers, each more powerful than the
last. Her "ascent" - showcased by climbing ladders up to the suspended
cage above the ring, represents her social climbing as a courtesan. At
the height of her career, she was the mistress of the then politically
troubled King Ludwig of Bavaria, the "Mad King", played successfully
and effectively by Anton Walbrook.
Lola is played by Martin Carol, a French model and actress who in real life died tragically. For this role, Carol did not accentuate the sensuality or free spirit of the eponymous heroine, who was known to be quite liberal, independent and highly sexual. This would be because it was the repressive 50's and sex was definitely not accepted on film or on television. Carol portrays Lola as a dignified woman, adding a touch of class and even pathos. She's even a victim of a male-dominated and cruel society. She's a quiet submissive object of beauty, as still as the Odelisk painting she poses for "en rose" or in the nude. The sad finale makes us feel very sorry for Lola. While we think she will die from that high jump to the center ring, especially because she has just re-lived her hard life through memories, and endured much public inspection by shameless spectators. However, she lives, but barely, as a sad, resigned woman who is possibly living her last days as the object of attention, though this time to her own detriment. Her glory days behind her, she's nothing but a sideshow now, where men pay for a kiss from her. My favorite scenes: Lola as a young girl on a cruise with her mother who is bent on marrying her off, Lola dancing at the Paris Opera Ballet, Lola and Liszt, Lola and her indiscreet affair with the married conductor of the Tivoli cabaret Claudio Pirotto. And of course the scenes with the King Ludwig. And that finale still gets to me.
In the Nineteenth Century, the Irish born dancer Lola Montès (Martine
Carol) was the lover of many famous men, including Franz Liszt and the
King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her Countess of Landsfeld. With a
revolutionary movement, she flees from Munich and travels to the United
States of America. She is hired by the Circus Master (Peter Ustinov)
that tells her scandalous love affairs in every show and she becomes
the lead attraction of the circus.
"Lola Montès" is not my favorite Max Ophüls film, but it is certainly his best work of cinematography, costumes and art decoration. The restored DVD highlights these aspects and it recalls Luchino Visconti style. However, the narrative of the life of the most scandalous European woman of the Nineteenth Century is tiresome in many moments. My vote is seven.
Title (Brazil): "Lola Montèz"
Watching "Lola Montes" often feels like rollerskating up and down hilly
streets lined with sumptuously designed department store windows. At
other times you would swear that Josef von Sternberg made a 50s
comeback in color, so packed are the frames and so obstructed are the
sightlines; the only thing missing is the Sternbergian close-ups. Then
you might wonder if Bertolt Brecht had a hand in the screenplay, so
alienated are we from the emotional core of this woman's life.
The film seesaws between a circus act starring the middle-aged title character (Martine Carol) and flashbacks to her past. In the circus setting, ringmaster Peter Ustinov presents a series of impossibly lavish tableaux which depict points in Montes's scandalous life. The flashbacks include her first marriage, her dalliance with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), and her relationship with a Bavarian student (Oskar Werner). In reality, Montes never appeared as the star of such a circus act, but this film's creators have chosen to present her life in these terms in order to cast her as a metaphor of the celebrity freak, no different in essence from a circus animal who jumps through hoops or a daredevil who engages in public spectacle. She is almost always seen from a distance, as if to emphasize her actual insignificance. The parallels to our contemporary celebrity culture are obvious.
But beyond this commentary on celebrity and the technical virtuosity of the busy sets and panning camera, there is nothing much here. There is certainly no compelling drama. The central character is so distanced from the viewer that she can only be grasped as a concept, not as a human being.
And I have to agree with others that Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" comes to mind, but even that endless Carnival Cruise Ship commercial had a clear central love story.
It is a great shame that Max Ophuls only made one colour wide-screen
movie - this one. The master of the tracking shot might have done so
much more but this was his last completed movie.
The scenes are mostly well-directed and beautifully photographed but the main problem with "Lola Montès" is Lola. It is impossible for the viewer to understand how this plain, charmless woman (underplayed by Martine Carol) could seduce and inspire composers and kings. Where is the beauty, the sexiness, the vivacity of Lola?
I am not asking for a documentary but the real life story of Lola is so much more interesting. I know that Ophuls is commenting on the downside of celebrity - Lola wants to be a star and ends up in a circus (if Ophuls made this today, Lola would appear in a TV "reality" show or sex tape) - but without a compelling central character the spectacle falls as flat as the cardboard cutouts of Lola.
Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" owes something to Lola Montes.
The movie has its moments -- it worked for me as a meditation on the exploitation of love, and the exploitation of despair. Some have commented on the wooden Martine Carol performance, but I thought that was the point. Lola Montes is a blank slate onto whom her admirers project what they want to see. She's vibrant and captivating only to men who want her. And why do they want her? The endless stream of men willing to pay a dollar to kiss her hand -- they want her only because so many other men have wanted her, famous men. It's not about getting a piece of Lola the person, it's about getting a piece of Lola the brand. She's a product (in a cage!) marketed by Ustinov. They have a creepily symbiotic relationship -- the huckster needs his product, and the product needs to be sold.
Before she sells out to Ustinov, Lola lives for love, exploits it for all she's worth, and is exploited for all she's worth. In despair, she turns to Ustinov's show, where she daily and literally recreates her fall from the heights of romance to the tawdry center ring, where her life is exposed to question and ridicule from the cheap seats.
Not a bad flick. I thought the cheesy storytelling techniques -- the flashbacks, the elements of predictability (of course she's going to meet the King of Germany) her "dangerously weak heart" and the concerned doctor -- were ham handed by design, slyly self-mocking. Lola Montes is a movie worth seeing and thinking about.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The framing conceit is Peter Ustinov as a circus ringmaster, putting
Lola Montes on display, and charging money for each question asked of
her, mostly concerning her affairs with famous men. In that register of
celebrity, she rivals Alma Maria Schindler. As each question is asked
-- "What was her youth like?" and so forth -- we get to watch a
flashback and see her development into what Ustinov keeps calling a
It's in wide screen, the musical score is majestic, and the movie is splashed with colors varying in their degree of luridness. I kind of liked the decor. All that crimson Victorian-era flock or whatever it's called. A few more plastic ferns and beaded curtains and it would look like a 1910 Egyptian whorehouse or like my apartment, both settings being so similar.
Granted that a lot of imagination has gone into the production, as well as a lot of talent and money. I believe Picasso had imagination and talent too, but look what he produced. One magnificent panel of the bombing of a Spanish town, and the rest are stone-faced clowns or models with three breasts.
There has to be a point to the whole thing, and it must somehow involve the viewer. I don't think there was a moment I cared about what happened to Lola Montes. Her character is more marionette than seductress. And the dialog doesn't help. Franz Liszt: "It is better that we part this way." Lola: "Some day we will meet again, you at your concert and me on my stage." Liszt: "It will have to be a coincidence." Lola: "All of life is a coincidence." That's deeply profound.
I'm not bashing the movie because I didn't make it to the end, and evidently it has a lot of popular appeal, but I can't help wondering -- if it had been directed by someone named, say, Bruce Ophuls instead of Max, would it have had the same appeal?
If a film were purely spectacle and music, I would give this a 10. Unfortunately, the lack of charisma of the principle actress makes it hard to sit through. It is a series of vignettes offered to attendees of a circus where Miss Montes answers questions for a quarter and lets her hand be kissed for a dollar (the French exchange rate comes into play, of course). The movie is nice to look at with rich colors and interesting circus scenes. I wonder if the film has been worked on because it literally glows. It's the self importance of Carol and the tiresome people who seem to bring it down a bit. I never felt sympathy for her character; her arbitrariness just lost me. Franz Liszt looks like the second place winner in a Fabio look-alike contest. Then we are to feel great sorrow for her because she needs to stay in a dormitory for a short time on an ocean voyage. Because she feels slighted, she begins to get this crust about her and begin to use people. She is a courtesan in the true sense. Carol just doesn't work. Now Marlene Dietrich. There you go. Ophuls is interesting and this was his last film. It's certainly eye candy.
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