Whether it's the last words you ever speak which take on heightened significance, or the way you look at someone just before a tragic accident, the last thing you ever do is going to be seen as monumental, even if you didn't intend it to be. Lola Montès was the final film of legendary director Max Ophuls before his untimely heart failure at the age of 54. There are no whispers of what is to come, no montages that seem to prophesy the coming death. Perhaps it's unfair to even reveal such a fact if you haven't seen the film, though it does not deal directly with mortality, but instead with the sensational life and times of Lola Montes.
The film opens in a circus, with a ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) inviting us to partake in the scandalous spectacle, a trip through the life of courtesan and dancer Lola Montes. Montes was a real woman, but the film is concerned more with fable and fiction. The circus where we will happily pass the next two hours is an enormous set, with no given location, and we are not really given enough information to ascertain whether it is real or imagined by the character of Lola Montes (Martine Carol) The ringmaster leads us through Lola's life and we are taken into deeper exploration of very few segments, her childhood, her affair with Franz Liszt, and her time in Bavaria, to name a few. In one outstanding flashback scene, Montes discovers while dancing onstage that her paramour is married. She leaps from the stage, slaps him silly, and storms through the crowd (knocking over chairs and pushing people) to where his wife is seated, thrusting at her the jewels the unfaithful man had bestowed upon Montes. A strangely moral moment in a sea of lurid behavior, but that's Lola -- an unpredictable firebrand one moment and a detached figurine the next. The film is expertly shot with that vague feeling of drowsy memory, reality and farce overlaid intricately. In the circus scenes, Lola is engaged quite literally as a performer, walking some minor tightropes from scene to scene, without any indication of whether events being depicted have any basis in fact. One particularly lovely moment of visual shorthand involves the ascension of Lola from the ground, first clasping the hand of one trapeze artist and then another (with the names of her famous lovers being called out one by one) as she is swung, pulled and brought ever higher until she reaches the pinnacle, a silver cage symbolizing her relationship with King Ludwig I. A final shot reminds us of Montes' place in the world, enclosed in yet another cage as the audience streams toward her and we pull back farther, farther, farther, until we are shut out by a curtain.
In her portrayal of Montes, Martine Carol is slightly glassy, clearly beautiful in the Vivien Leigh vein, but lacking the fire that made Leigh so intoxicating to watch. In his essay, Gary Giddins makes the point that "With Carol, [Ophuls] presents Lola as a prisoner of sex, and draws a cinematic line -- a tracking shot of course -- between the object of our curiosity and her unknowable interior life." How well this describes our own continued cultural fascination with celebrity. We are made curious by their lives lived entirely in public, and still we want to know more about them.
As with any well-made film, there are visual and mental references that drift slowly up through the mind as if bobbing to the surface of a pool, reminding me of so many films that were made around the same time and later. There are hints of Fellini and the faintest touches of half-remembered moments in both Wenders and Hitchcock around the edges of the film, subtle clues that emphasize that films are not made in a vacuum, but are rather the product of the films and filmmakers that came before them and would come after them. It is certain that Ophuls understood the haunting themes of memory and obsession as well as any who would pick up a camera and commit to celluloid their own particular vision.
It feels a bit unfair to say that Lola Montes can be slightly boring at times, dragging its heels a bit more than my modern mind could forgive. But this may not be entirely Ophuls' fault! Lola Montès did not do so well upon its original release, leading the producers to re-cut it against Ophuls' wishes. This meant the film could not be appreciated as intended for many years, until recently when the rights were procured; it was re-cut together again and released by Criterion in both regular DVD and Blu-ray formats. The film is in French, with English subtitles, and boasts a running time of 114 minutes, so it's best to keep in mind that the original film was closer to 140 and was made in three different languages! However, this re-release is presented fairly close to how it was meant to be seen, restored in vibrant color and in the proper aspect ratio of 2.55:1.
The Criterion DVD is lovely, with large loose letters and a painting of Montes adorning the front of the slipcase as well as the inside insert that houses the double discs. One disc contains the film, replete with audio commentary from Susan White, an Ophuls specialist who knows how to tie together the many threads from Ophuls' life and work, placing Lola Montès in its proper place in the canon. Also included on this release are some small items, such as a segment barely a few minutes long featuring Martine Carol showing off the different hairstyles in the film, and the theatrical re-release trailer. Much more interesting is a 1965 episode of French television entitled "Max Ophuls ou le plaisir de tourner," which delves extensively into the making of not only Lola, but La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame De... and other Ophuls films. This program clocks in at about 50 minutes in length, and is comprised of interviews with many collaborators and even actors such as Simone Simon and Martine Carol. The footage is fairly ill-preserved, however, which makes watching a little tiresome, but the information is still interesting enough that it outweighs the viewing experience.
Max Ophuls is survived by his son Marcel, who lovingly put together a half-hour documentary Max by Marcel about his father and the filmmaking process. (There's one laughable moment as we see Marcel holding some papers, digging around in his attic as he wonders aloud where a certain script could be. He then looks at the papers in his hand and says something along the lines of "Oh is this it? Oh no, this is the script for Jules and Jim, Francois sent this to me," and sets it all aside. It felt simultaneously completely staged as well as a valiant attempt to appear typical. As if most of us just have scripts personally sent to us by Truffaut that we must brush aside as we look for the work that our famous father did, and through it all I am suddenly reminded of the lyric from Pulp, "I want to live like common people." But, all Brit-pop related musing aside, the rest of the time he dispels several oft-repeated production related myths, such as the time his father was told some film related camera track would appear in the shot and said, "I don't care." Marcel emphasizes that his father would never have said such a thing, but instead was intent upon finding the best way to realize his vision in every film. The ins and outs of making this film are intriguing, again considering this was not only his first film in color, but it was to be Ophuls' last film of all time.
Which brings us full circle. As I watched it for the second time, the frailty of Montes struck me as she barely made it through her performance, with the ringmaster driving her onward. In his refusal to accept anything less than precisely his vision, Ophuls has made a work worthy of a final film, a grand visual undertaking that leads us from ships to castles, from the roads of Bavaria to the Italian countryside, and all in pursuit of the knowledge of an unknowable woman. Lola Montès is grandiose, vibrant and unknowable, all of which will keep you coming back time and again.
Lola Montès is now available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.