Lola Montès

Lola Montès

Film review by: Witney Seibold



            Ladies and gentlemen! Lola Montès (Martine Carol) is the star attraction here at the Parisian circus! O, the life she has lived! Marvel at the tales of her impetuous youth! Hear the story of her affair with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg)! Hear about the time she stripped in the throne room of King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook)! Listen as she recounts the story of her loss of innocence at the hands of a young shipmate! React in shock when she tells the naughty story of the time she took a young man, in more ways than one, for a ride in her carriage! Hear how she was once involved in an uprising, a dance troupe, and a symphony.

            If you want to kiss her hand, it will cost only $1.

            So narrates the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) at the outset of Max Ophüls’ 1955 film “Lola Montès.” Lola is indeed the star attraction of the circus’ center ring, and while her story (told in non-chronological flashbacks) is indeed true, she does little more than pose in fancy dresses and occasionally perform some sloppy dance numbers. Surrounding her is an endless series of inordinately opulent sets and vehicles illustrating, like living paintings, the amazing tales. It’s like the film “Moulin Rogue!” would have been, if it bothered to be quiet and sophisticated. The circus scenes are some of the most impressively ornate ever put to film, and are probably the inspiration for the Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris’ comment that “Lola Montès” is the greatest film ever made.

            I don’t feel it’s the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly a rare treat to be able to see it in theaters for a limited time, after a meticulous restoration and re-edit by some particularly rigorous Ophüls fans in the French film restoration society. And, apart from the beautiful circus scenes, it’s actually the type of gloriously glitzy epic tragedy that one rarely sees on film anymore.

            Lola is torn. She wants the life afforded her by a comfortable marriage to a rich man, but it far too willful to put up with any one man for too long. She aggressively goes after the males she wants, shedding all forms of politeness and decorum, and through such tactics, can usually land her object of desire. The same forwardness, however, either eventually drives the men away, or forces her to look to new men. Eventually she loses all of her men, and must make a living by selling stories of her slutty past to a high-end circus. The final shot is hundreds of men lining up to met her. A simultaneous sell-out and triumph.



            Sadly, Martine Carol in the title role, can’t really portray Lola with the necessary oomph. Half the time she is a weepy, whiny, broody bourgeois brat, and the other half she suddenly displays an uncharacteristic resoluteness that would have saved her from her ennui, had she displayed it in other scenes. The screenplay would have us believe she is a strong-willed woman, but Carol only seems to be strong-willed a small amount of the time. We have to take the film’s word for it that scads of famous men would find her so alluring. All this means, with such a wishy-washy title character, that the film is ultimately kind of weak. Beautiful and a wonder, but kind of limp as a drama.

            I have seen only one other Max Ophüls film, his acclaimed “The Earrings of Madame de…,” and it was similarly opulent, although a little harder to follow. It was, however, infinitely stronger, and managed to wring drama from an otherwise typical doomed upper-class romance. From what I have read, most Ophüls films are a bit scattered, and “Lola Montès,” his penultimate film, has his strongest narrative. “Lola” is certainly worth a look, but if you’re seeking an exemplar of the director’s skill, stick with “The Earrings of Madame de…”

Published in: on November 10, 2008 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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