Friday Editor’s Pick: Lola Montes (1955)

by on December 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Dec 23 at 7:00 at the Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


Before you completely give over to the holidays, Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert’s “See It Big!” series delivers some glorious color and scope. As Joshua Rothkopf reminds us, “Here’s a perfect example of a movie that requires a big screen to bloom—and bloom it does, into something fairly extraordinary.”

The epic series concludes on New Years with Barry Lyndon.


Rothkopf continues for Time Out New York:

In a revelatory new print from the Cinémathèque Française, a mysterious and wonderful alchemy occurs. Suddenly, Lola seems more of a victim, dwarfed by events and men. (The clarity of the restoration turns even Carol’s facial immobility and woodenness into an asset, emphasizing her self-objectification: a tossed-away puppet.) More to the point, Lola Montès bum-rushes you with the hyperactivity of its spectacle. A circus-set framing device, which features ringleader Peter Ustinov presenting his female treasure to a crowd (and to us), has a buzzy vulgarity when supplied with size and, more notably, enhanced color. Red lights bathe certain moments in whorish desperation. Tiny color-coordinated imps, clowns in the performance, run toward the lens. Even the purple cuffs of Ustinov’s jacket give off a radioactive glow, part of his salesman’s pitch.


Lola Montès could never be confused for realism in any format: home video, theater or iPod. But its effectiveness as a tragedy relies on Ophüls setting out a luxurious spread for his hapless heroine. When Lola comes closest to serenity, in the Bavarian Alps with doting King Ludwig I (Walbrook), the deep-blue skies and decadent palace interiors play a crucial role, as they do during her frantic exile, with revolutionaries beating down the door. She may not be meant for this world, but we can finally see it in all its splendor.


Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

The exacting and sumptuous Cinémathèque Française restoration of “Lola Montès,” Max Ophüls’s last film, from 1955, recovers not just the movie’s look but also its meaning. The romantic costume drama presents a great nineteenth-century femme fatale, a faux-Spanish danseuse and gold-digger whose lovers included Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria. Yet Ophüls makes of her story something stunningly personal. He starts the movie where Lola (played by the thirty-five-year-old French sex symbol and scandal magnet Martine Carol) ends up: in an American circus, reënacting her adventures. Her passions burned out, her money gone, her earlier days of wildness recurring to her in flashbacks, she has become a celebrity, a precursor to a movie star. The movie is a colossal spectacle about colossal spectacles, and the extravagant palette, the cavernous sets, and the wide-screen images in which Ophüls entombs Lola (and Carol) contrast cruelly with the real-life pathos of the performers, whom the director’s own magnificent artistry cannot help but exploit as well as celebrate


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

A baroque masterpiece by Max Ophuls, his last film (1955) and his only work in color and wide-screen. The producers were expecting a routine melodrama with Martine Carol (a bland French star of the period); when they saw what Ophuls had made—with its exquisite stylization, elaborate flashbacks, and infinite subtlety—they cut it to ribbons. The film was restored in the 60s, and certainly this story of a courtesan’s life is among the most emotionally plangent, visually ravishing works the cinema has to offer.



Malcolm Tulvey for Artforum:

Max Ophüls’s last and perhaps greatest film. Artificiality and performance are major concerns of this film, both on the level of the narrative, with characters playing literal and metaphoric roles, and, more reflexively, on the level of the film itself. It arguably turns Lola’s life into a cheap spectacle, one that satisfies the prurient desire of its audience for sensation much as the circus and Lola herself do. Lola Montès is one of the most scrupulously honest films in the history of cinema, shining a light—long before political modernists of the 1960s such as Jean-Luc Godard and Nagisa Oshima—on the filmmaker’s and viewers’ willing complicity in the fabrications of the film’s characters.


And yet, not everything is inauthentic. For just as viewers can feel genuine emotions toward characters while remaining fully aware that they are fictional, so sometimes do the characters themselves exhibit real feelings. After being forced to flee Bavaria, Lola confesses that she loved the king, and from the opening moments of the film, Ophüls demonstrates that, behind the illusion of a powerful, beautiful femme fatale, there is an exhausted woman who has been made ill by her lifestyle. Pretense shades unpredictably and sometimes tragically into reality, the film seems to say, a point confirmed by its devastating final scene, in which men line up to touch Lola, now protected (and imprisoned) by bars.


Andrew Sarris famously pronounced Lola “the greatest film of all time,” and in 1969 reclarified that opinion:

Back in 1962, I hailed Lola Montès as the greatest film of all time, and I stand by that judgment…This culminates a crusade I have been waging for the past six years through two New York Film Festivals. And now, as the big momentapproaches, I find it will take me two or three weeks and several more viewings to write an adequate critique… Lola is probably the single most important experience of my critical life, the one film more than any other that has shaped my aesthetic… Lola is nothing if not pleasurable. I have been told by authorities in the field that it even fits into the pot [marijuana] scene as it swirls and swoops through space with its delirious director’s camera. No matter, Lola Montès is clearly the film of the year, or any year.”


Sarris revisits and shrewdly suggests a contemporary comparison in 2008:

Actually, the overriding subtext of Lola Montès emerges more strongly in our own time, besotted as we are with celebrities, now more accessible than ever through all the technological advances in personality magnification and projection. As the ever menacing Sarah Palin proves once again that mere mediocrity is no obstacle to gaining a frightening degree of power, the Ophüls vision is timelier than ever. As I watch Ms. Palin in fearful rapport with hordes of hockey moms, I am reminded not so much of Lola Montès herself as of the larger numbers of celebrity-worshippers with proudly limited intellects in our own time threatening to plunge us irrevocably into the abyss. In his own cultivated way, Ophüls (1902-1957) proved to be something of a prophet. It is not pleasant to be reminded that things can only get worse, but I recommend Lola Montès wholeheartedly nonetheless both for its sensuous delights and its ever exquisite artistry.


Sarris’s wife of 40 years, critic Molly Haskell, quipped “I think if I hadn’t liked Lola Montès, our relationship might have been over.”

Francois Truffaut vigorously defended the film, taken from The Films in My Life:

The cinematrographic year now ending [1955] has been the richest and most stimulating since 1946. It opened with Fellini’s La Strada, and its apotheosis is Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès. Like the heroine of its title, the film may provoke a scandal and arouse passions. If we must fight, we shall; if we must polemicize, so be it.


The way the narrative is constructed, the way it hurries the chronology, reminds us of Citizen Kane, though now we have the benefits of CinemaScope, a process here used to the maximum of its potential for the first time…The structure is new as well as daring; it could well confuse the viewer who lets himself become distracted or who comes in the middle. Too bad. There are films that demand undivided attention. Lola Montès is one of them.The film is constructed rigorously; if it throws some viewers off, it’s because for fifty years most films have been narrated in an infantile way. From this point of view, Lola Montès is not only like Citizen Kane, but also The Barefoot Contessa, Les Mauvaises Recontres, and all those films that turn chronology around for poetic effect.

The result is less a matter of following a story than contemplating a portrait of a woman. The image is too full and too rich to see it all at once. The author clearly intends it that way, going so far as to listen to several conversations at once. Clearly, Ophuls is interested less in the strong moments of intrigue than in what occurs in between them. The story that we grasp in scraps—what we perceive of it helps us to reconstitute the rest as in real life—is brilliantly laconic. The characters do not sum up situations with elegant formulas; when they suffer, it is seen, not articulated. Surely this is the most intelligent and precise dialogue heard in a French film since Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite.



Cullen Gallagher for L Magazine:

Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès: the cinematic analog to Charlie Parker with Strings or, better yet, the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 (when a whimsical 19th-century sway glides into a heavy ragtime swing, long before such a genre was even around). Like those two musical works, Lola Montès is a near perfect marriage of classicism and modernism. The real-life rise and fall of an aristocratic femme fatale who ends up as a circus attraction (literally), the film’s formal elegance has rarely been matched, and yet the borders of its expansive CinemaScope frame can scarcely contain the director’s kinetic visuals. With every frame saturated with unreasonable grandeur, Lola Montès is nothing short of an Ophüls-explosion.


While still in high critical esteem, Ophüls seems to have fallen out of vogue. Unlike Douglas Sirk (whose self-conscious subversion to melodrama has helped find new generations of appreciators), Ophüls never winks at his audience. But beneath the poise and formality there is a wealth of humor, terror and humanity, not to mention playful cinematic invention. Until recently, only one film of his was available on DVD (actually, a maliciously bad print of Lola). The glorious restoration of Lola Montès finally gives Max Ophüls the royal treatment his work deserves.



Gary Giddins for The Criterion Collection:

“Life for me is . . . a movement,” says the movie’s Lola. “My life is whirling in my head,” she frets. Few would have been surprised if Ophuls—the bard of pictorial motion, whose camera doesn’t simply permit us to see but rather, like an enthusiastic friend, pulls us into the whirl of life—had made those statements about himself. Max and Lola promised to be a couple made in dolly-shot heaven. Yet his Lola is far removed from history’s spitfire dervish. More often than not, the camera circles or closes in on her recumbent on a divan or fixed on a platform, as inert as a wedding cake ornament. If Lola Montès is a film infatuated with motion, its heroine is often a study in motion denied. This is nothing like a conventional movie biography. It is, instead, a profound meditation on the presumptions and limitations of all biography. So much has been written about the director’s virtuosity that relatively little is said about his scrupulous treatment of truth, power, gender, compromise, the selling of the self.

Lola Montès is the kind of flamboyant yet meticulous film that rewards the spectator’s age and experience: the more we bring to it, the more we take away. Its remarkable structure can be approached in diverse ways. This annotation, borrowing a musical formulation, parses the film into six movements and a transition.


Chris Wisniewski for Reverse Shot:

Like Kenji Mizoguchi — the great Japanese director whose own oeuvre has also recently become more available on DVD, and one of only a handful of directors worthy of a comparison to Ophuls—his is a cinema of elegant, precise camera movement, where tracking shots reveal and negotiate complex chronologies and social hierarchies, particularly as they relate to questions of gender and femininity. But the vertical axis is just as important in Lola Montes as the horizontal one. At the beginning of the film, Ophuls’s camera tilts down at a low angle as chandeliers are lowered in the circus tent. Later, in a flashback, his camera tracks left, tilts up, tracks right, tilts up, over and over, as Lola travels up the stairs of an opera house, flight by flight. These camera movements give Ophuls an opportunity to show off the extraordinary production design by Jean d’Eaubonne and to subvert the human element of his story. Given the flatness of her characterization and the loveliness of her physical presence, Carol herself becomes another aspect of this spectacular mise-en-scène, and the camera, by ceaselessly following her in her movement through these elaborate spaces, comes to confine her within them, as much as it traces a literal and figurative rise and fall. Watching Lola Montes, it is easy to remember why Ophuls became such an important reference point for auteurist critics in the Fifties and Sixties: his indisputable technical virtuosity uses the language of cinema itself to establish and communicate a fully realized worldview. His camerawork is always indisputably Ophulsian, in the sense of being sweepingly stylish and kinetic but also thoroughly, meticulously thought through.

Lola Montes can perhaps best be understood as a bridge between late-classical melodrama and the generic experiments of the various post-classical international new waves. Like the contemporaneous Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk, Lola uses delirious color, excessive mise-en-scène, and multiple planes within the frame—frequently, we see the principal characters from behind scrims, curtains, and windows—to place us at an emotional remove from the narrative of the film and expose the artifice at its core. But the circus scenes take this emphasis on artificiality to an extreme. The circus is a celebration and mockery of Lola and her life that adds an interpretive gloss to the flashback sequences. By addressing us directly as an audience, these scenes confront us with our own lurid fascination in Lola’s exploits and, indeed, Lola’s body. This makes the movie’s wonderful, sad final shot all the more pointed, because even as Ophuls makes explicit Lola’s tragic fate, he indicts us for our complicity in craving the spectacle she represents. Ravishing and reflexive, sumptuous and sad, Lola Montes has finally received treatment worthy of its place in film history. Ophuls died just two years after the movie’s release, and it breaks my heart to think that he never saw such a magnificent restoration as this. But as someone who loves the cinema, I count myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to see it myself.



Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

Extravagantly over-budgeted, heavily edited after hostile French screenings, and released in three different languages, it was from the start designed as an all-or-nothing gamble, an attempt to use its novelettish subject as a codex for everything its maker, Max Ophüls, stood for. As such, the filmmaker’s obsessive concerns with the passage of time and female beauty (and its exploitation) take center stage—literally in this case, as the story unfurls largely in the three-ring arena of a 19th-century circus. The main attraction at the center of the swarming trapeze artists and costumed dwarves is the eponymous heroine (Martine Carol), an aging courtesan whose sole claim of fame, a list of illustrious lovers during her youthful romps throughout Europe, fills the big top with curious, salacious masses.
A bodice-ripper invested with the profundity of a Stendhal novel, Lola Montes is also, even more than La Ronde, Ophüls’s definite commentary on movie-watching. It’s surely no accident that the circus arena, with its opulent chandeliers, choreographed movement and behind-the-scenes clutter, is very transparently a movie set, a self-reflexive contraption which, as Lola sits on a revolving stage and is consumed by the eyes in the dark, seems to both exalt and engulf the heroine. It’s here that Martine Carol’s lack of charisma in the title role becomes an advantage: Many think she gives the film a hollow center, but I believe her limitations are necessary for a part that crystallizes the audience’s own role in the cinematic process, that of projecting their own desire onto celluloid surfaces. The Earrings of Madame de… is a smoother and more precise valse romantique, but Lola Montes is Ophüls’s boldest vision of film as a medium that reveres beauty in order to both nurture and mock dreams. After their own sobering affair with the film, viewers are left to echo Liszt’s compliment to Lola: “Thank you for the illusion.”


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →