LOLA MONTÈS in history, spelled with a ‘z’, was an Irish-born ‘Spanish dancer’ and courtesan who had affairs with a slew of famous men in the 1840s, plying her favors to great effect and outrage before passing away from syphilis in 1851, age 39. The 1955 epic French movie chronicling her rise and fall was the final, ill-fated feature directed by humanist artist par excellence Max Ophüls. Like his devotion-drawing heroine, the obsession-focused director also died young, 54, felled from a bad heart, or perhaps too much heart? Mangled by producers after initial criticism and poor receipts, languishing in limbo for decades, elements believed lost were restored in 2008. The tribute to the mores of amour was rediscovered and reappraised as a swan song classic, imperfect but nonetheless an overall stunning achievement.
From one end of 114 minutes to the other Ophüls jam-packs his cinema canvas with a dizzying display of hugely complicated yet gracefully flowing directorial technique. His camera stylings glide through recalled episodes in the rich and tragic love-life of the socially & sensually liberated, emotionally consumed free-thinker, played by postwar French sexpot Martine Carol.
On resplendent locations, the art direction, costuming and props bedeck complex crowd scenes of hundreds alternating with intimate moments between lovers. The plot-propelling device—which audiences rejected when it came out, and is now seen to be ingenious and influential—has on-screen narration from Peter Ustinov (in French), as an impresario who ringmasters a circus tour that recreates passages from Lola’s scandalous past. Surrounded by a garish mob of acrobats, musicians, dwarves, jugglers and ‘acts’, the resigned and sickly Lola, once a consort to royalty, now performs dangerous stunts and allows herself to be ogled by a crowd of gawking commoners. *
Among her conquests are an egotistical Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), a naive, smitten student (Oskar Werner), the powerful but yearning Ludwig I, King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook) whom she influences to the point it starts a revolution, and cagey showman Ustinov. Quadflieg and Werner are no great shakes, but a touching Walbrook is excellent, and the deft Ustinov makes the most of the droll throwaway lines in the clever screenplay.
Ophüls and Annette Wademant crafted the script off a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent, and while most of it is quite good—it gets more amusing and affecting as it goes—there are some lurches here and there that feel incomplete, maybe suffering from the editing? Oddly, the most notable stray ingredient in the bouillabaisse is that leading lady Martine Carol is less interesting than that which flows around her. She’s not bad (many reviews say that, some cruelly), she’s just so-so, often inexpressive when the character cries out for verve. The film is so filled with striking imagery, framing skill and adroit observations that giving her a stein of grief comes off as ingratitude. **
Locales include landscapes and castles in France, Austria and Germany, with Technicolor cinematography by Christian Matras. The only film Ophüls made in color, its $2,000,000 expense entailed shooting three different versions, in French, German and English. With Henri Guisol, Lise Delamare, Paulette Dubose, Carl Esmond, Ivan Desny and Ady Berber.
* Some people have more fun. Along with composer Liszt and the deaf Ludwig, Lola Montez (born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert) had a fling with Alexandre Dumas, precipitated a duel, then later a murder (dueling considered civilized homicide), did a ‘Spider Dance’ sans underwear in Melbourne, Australia that had its newspaper bleat that her prancing was “utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality”. Her manager ‘fell overboard’ on the way back to the States. Finding time, she wrote “Anecdotes of Love; Being a True Account of the Most Remarkable Events Connected with the History of Love” and “The Arts of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascination“. Someone needs to make a movie about this lady...
** Actress Mylène Demongeot noted in her memoirs that Martine Carol was booed during the premiere (merci, ingrates). To stretch the Art-Imitate-Life trope a skoosh, Martine Carol’s roughly decade-long reign as a French pinup and movie sex symbol had its share of failed marriages, substance abuses and suicide attempts (a taxi driver pulling her out of the Seine). She was even briefly kidnapped by a notorious gangster, Pierre Loutrel. He apologized with roses: they don’t make notorious gangsters like they used to. Eclipsed in fickle public favor and cold professional climate by the force of au naturel called Brigitte Bardot, she passed away from a heart attack at 46, in the middle of shooting a film with the indelicate title Hell Is Empty. She has some fine moments in Lola Montés. Posterity should display some gallantry.