As misunderstood as its titular character, Max Ophuls’s final film, Lola Montès, was greeted with almost unanimous contempt at its premiere in 1955, resulting in a series of producer-initiated chop jobs that mangled a masterpiece. After decades of inferior existence, the film was finally properly restored to its original version and screened at the Cannes and Telluride festivals in 2008. Now, Criterion presents that version on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is a wonderful sight to behold.
Critic Andrew Sarris — the originator of the term “auteur theory” — called the film the greatest ever made, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Lola Montès is the daring and unique vision of a director at the top of his game, with the forced parameters of filming in color and CinemaScope notwithstanding. Ophuls may not have been thrilled with these technical choices, but combined with his virtuosic dollying camera and the radical structure of the film, they achieve a level of visual intoxication that might not have been quite so strong in black-and-white.
Superficially based on the life of 19th century courtesan and dancer Lola Montez, Lola Montès is only fleetingly a historical picture and never succumbs to the ordinary machinations of a biopic. In the present time, Lola (Martine Carol) is a circus performer — her salacious reputation as a seducer of men her primary attraction — and her escapades are recounted by a cold and bombastic ringmaster, played to perfection by Peter Ustinov. A series of non-chronological flashbacks are triggered by the ringmaster’s tales — directly setting reality in opposition to his exaggerations.
Lola engages in affairs with a wide array of men, including composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), and a German student (Oskar Werner), but the relationships are not nearly as titillating as the booming voice on the other side of history proclaims. Lola’s aspirations to be a dancer mostly go unfulfilled; her talents are hardly shown and she is never taken seriously in this regard.
Similarly, in the circus, Lola is featured primarily for sex, with patrons paying to kiss her or ask questions about her colorful past — all of which are answered by the ringmaster. Her one performance feat — a highwire daredevil dive — will lead to her eventual death, a doctor warns offstage.
Ophuls creates an astonishing environment with his circus, and the color cinematography of Christian Matras is an essential component to its beauty. It’s an entirely self-contained world filled with strange flourishes like an Uncle Sam-led orchestra and a giant crown on a bobbing string. Indeed, the entire world of the film is contained within that big top, as we can assume the flashbacks are Lola’s recollections. The film is trapped inside the circus and Lola herself is trapped inside the circus, a world where she is just a commodity controlled by an entirely aloof ringmaster — Ustinov is rarely shot in a close-up.
Analysis and plot summary can only go so far in describing the film though, which more than 50 years later, still stands out as a vibrant and original piece of cinema. Ophuls’s complete mastery of his constantly moving camera is transcendent, but the film is more than just beautiful tracking shots. Lola Montès is an underseen masterpiece, and a single viewing makes it clear that Sarris’s ultimate superlative still doesn’t convey what a glorious work this is.
The two-disc Criterion Collection DVD set includes an audio commentary by Ophuls scholar Susan White along with the film on the first disc. All other supplements are on disc two, the highlight of which is a 30-minute documentary by Marcel Ophuls, Max’s son, on his father and the making of the film.
A much older documentary, from a 1965 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, features some nice interview footage, but is almost painful to watch at times — its inferior picture represents the clips from the film atrociously.
A short piece of silent footage features Carol demonstrating several of the hairstyles used in the film, but isn’t quite so exciting. Rounding out the extras is the outstanding theatrical re-release trailer from Rialto Pictures, which is listed as appearing on the first disc on the packaging, but is actually on disc two.