Director: Max Ophuls
American and Europe, the nineteenth century. An American circus. A circus master introduces his star act, Lola Montes. He encourages the audience to ask her revealing questions, including how many lovers she’s had. Lola then has a series of flashbacks about her romantic past. Lola had an affair with Franz Liszt, the composer. En route to Rome, they agree that their romance must come to its inevitable end. The next flashback is to her youth, when her father, an army colonel dies of cholera. Lola’s mother neglects her, seeking herself a new husband. At 16, Lola marries Lt. James, who becomes a drunk, abusive husband.
Back in the present, a doctor warns of Lola’s deteriorating health; she has a weak heart and the show is too dangerous. More flashbacks: Lola acquires a reputation for scandal in Europe as the lover of many married men, including Claudio Pirotto, whose wife she reveals the affair to in a great spectacle. In Munich, she meets a young student, who falls for her, but her efforts to become a dancer, presented to the King, Ludwig I fails. She breaks into the palace, but Ludwig is lenient and takes Lola as his lover. Lola’s influence upon Ludwig becomes incredibly unpopular, with public protests and disorder soon occurring and she is banished from Bavaria. Refusing to settle with the student who loves her, she joins the circus in America, having refused an earlier invitation. In the present once more, she’s about to make a dangerous jump, without a safety net. She succeeds, to rapturous applause.
Causing a scandal upon release that Lola herself might have enjoyed, Ophuls’ final film had been the most expensive French film of all time and became one of its most notorious box-office failures. Much of the blame for this was erroneously placed upon the extensive use of flashbacks to demonstrate how colourful and ultimately dangerous Lola’s life had been, but since this was hardly a novel nor overly esoteric device, it’s a pretty flimsy excuse. Indeed, Ophuls’ own ‘Letter From An Unknown Woman’, his Hollywood masterpiece, uses them just as frequently to document a woman’s fall from grace because of the fickle emotions of the man she loves. Subsequently, the film was recut against Ophul’s wishes, with a more straight-forward, chronological version released thereafter. Some critics have described this version as “savagely butchered”, rather than a release that aids the understanding of the audience, although we can obviously say with the benefit of hindsight that Ophul’s vision of ‘Lola Montes’ was unlikely to have been improved upon through re-editing. A restored version of ‘Lola Montes’ was released in 2008, adding footage hitherto considered lost and edited in such a way to reflect how Ophuls had originally intended his film to be.
Ophuls has always been one of the most sympathetic film makers towards women. Frequently the central characters of his films; most notably in his three Hollywood films – ‘Letter From An Unknown Woman’, ‘The Reckless Moment’ or ‘Caught’, his female characters often begin callow and frail but develop an inner-strength and sense of resourcefulness, but are often prey to the pressures placed upon them by men. ‘Lola Montes’ continues in this style, developing these same themes. Lola’s origins are humble but she’s fiercely ambitious, setting her sights as high as becoming the lover of the King of Bavaria. Such is her feminine influence that she almost destroys a Kingdom. As her student lover explains, “you represent love, freedom, everything they resent”. Although there’s a sense that her libertine lifestyle has no real substance as she departs Europe for a degrading life in an American circus, having lived too much, having too many adventures, with no other options after Bavaria turns sour. Lola is a woman that men seek to exploit; first her abusive soldier husband, then finally, the circus ringmaster who profits from her glamour and notoriety. Still, the closing scene of hundreds of men surrounding Lola to get a glimpse or touch of her reminds us of her power.
One of the films most admired by Stanley Kubrick, ‘Lola Montes’ is a supremely artful demonstration of Ophul’s visual and technical flair. Beginning with the opening scene with the emergence of the circus environment, rich blue lighting overpowers us, before Ophuls meticulously recreates with some panache the busy world of the circus, symbolic perhaps of how far Lola has fallen. Ophuls, known for his smooth camera movements; crane, dolly and tracking shots, doesn’t disappoint. His camera is seldom skill, the movements articulately commenting upon the interior psychology of Lola herself at times. In the final scene previously mentioned, Ophuls starts with a close-up of Lola before pulling out to reveal her hundreds of admirers. He uses sombre close ups of Lola numerous times during the circus scenes. The world of the circus is stifling. It’s no wonder Lola falls ill and one wonders why she asks for the safety net to be removed against the advice of her doctor when she’s clearly unwell. In her flashbacks, Lola lives a life of romance and freedom but it’s the circus scenes that affords Ophuls the opportunity to impress us with his technical bravura, documenting its claustrophobia.
More confusing for audiences that the mere use of flashbacks might have been the sheer degree of artificiality of the film. But then, why should anyone familiar with Ophuls’ work be so surprised? Take the entire concept of a circus and ringmaster as the premise for a flashback-driven account of Lola’s life. It’s just a variation upon the merry-go-round theme used in ‘La Ronde’, a metaphorical and dramatic device to exploit the basic narrative. The use of Martine Carol is intriguing too. An actress of little reputation, although considered French cinema’s sex siren of the decade, Ophuls almost takes advantage of her lack of acting talent, moulding her to fit his vision. She’s largely expressionless, outacted at every turn by her supporting actors, though somehow, perversely, it more or less works. The absence of any notion of reality is crucial to the film’s success, and whilst it might appear as though Ophuls barely scratches the surface of Lola’s life, the sheer spectacle is sufficient enough to consider ‘Lola Montes’ a welcome restoration.
‘Lola Montes’ was released on DVD on 6 July on Second Sight Films.