Lola Montès is inarguably one of the most visually sumptuous films ever made, which has made the treatment the movie has received since its apparently disastrous 1955 premiere that much more dismaying. The most expensive European production that had ever been filmed at that time, director Max Ophüls’s Cinemascope spectacle opened in Paris under the burden of anxious expectations that soon transformed to such significant audience disapproval that Ophüls himself re-edited the film for wider release, removing several minutes of footage. But even this shortened version would ultimately be totally gutted by the panic-stricken producers who slashed the film down to 91 minutes, restructuring the flashback-driven narrative in chronological order in the process.
For years, this bowdlerized cut was the only Lola Montès in circulation, and the film’s reputation risked enduring further injustices as its expansive use of the widescreen frame was hacked in half for television, and its expressionistic color scheme faded to sickly hues from lack of care. Producer Pierre Braunberger obtained the rights to the film, and a partially reconstructed 110-minute version was finally assembled for a 1969 release, but Ophüls’s full 114-minute version—with properly refurbished colors, running time, stereo sound, and precise framing (earlier prints had slightly cropped the full 2.55:1 ratio to a more standard 2.35:1)—was only restored digitally quite recently, unveiled at Cannes in 2008, and this is the magnificent reconstruction that is presented by the Criterion Collection. I had previously been relatively content with Criterion’s old laserdisc of the 1969 partial restoration, where the film’s opulent Scope compositions and baroque settings still possessed some of their original luster. However, that release now looks almost as antiquated as the painfully cropped, black-and-white excerpts of the film that appear in the ’60s French television documentary on Ophüls that appears as a supplementary feature here. Criterion’s release of Lola Montès is easily one of the most important DVD and Blu-ray releases of the year, and is an essential addition to the library of anyone with a serious interest in cinema.
This, alas, makes it all the more difficult for me to confront the inescapable reality that I no longer personally like the damn film very much. From a purely formal perspective, Lola Montès remains a beautiful work of filmmaking, with Ophüls’s characteristically fluid and agile camera tracking, craning, and sweeping through a vibrant series of tableaus chronicling the notorious life of 19th-century courtesan Lola Montès, a scandalous libertine whose various romantic exploits throughout Europe eventually lead her to a life of loneliness and exploitation, performing for the crowds that line the tent of a traveling American circus (the real Montes, a.k.a. Irish-born Eliza Gilbert, did wind up in the States as a dancer and actress, but not a carnival attraction). Ophüls camerawork—comparable to that of Welles, and much admired by Kubrick—might be restless, but it’s anything but reckless: Ironically, for a film about an unskilled dancer, Lola Montès is among cinema’s most masterfully choreographed studies in framing and movement.
The film’s weaknesses are not related to style, but content, though they may indeed be intentionally employed; much like its eponymous protagonist, Lola Montès is a gorgeous “object” that seems, at its core, rather too cold and inert. Ophüls seems to regard the main character with a bemused detachment that almost flirts with an absence of empathy, though the film’s admirers have argued that this approach is conceptually shrewd, and not entirely rooted in the director’s dissatisfaction with the pretty but wooden star, Martine Carol, who was forced on him by the film’s financiers. But, indeed, the film does place its viewers in much the same position regarding Lola as the circus patrons who ogle her beauty from afar, without having a more profound understanding of her inner turmoil.
Ophüls frames Lola’s journey as a succession of flashbacks, memories that run through her mind during her later days performing for ringleader Peter Ustinov’s ornate sideshow. While the gloriously lurid big-top tableau of colored lights, costumed jugglers, and high-wire performers circle around her, the visibly tormented Lola recalls the world travels and lost loves that brought her to despair in a New Orleans exhibition. Pimped out to an old man by her licentious gold-digger mother, Lola flees for freedom and then winds her way through a series of high society male admirers, from a philandering conductor to the composer Franz Liszt, and, most prominently, King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a charming performance by Anton Walbrook), who granted Lola the title of Countess of Landsfeld, much to the rebellious anger of his subjects. After temporarily finding comfort in the arms of an idealistic student (Oskar Werner), Lola is ultimately seduced again—financially as much as emotionally—by Ustinov’s morally dubious ringmaster, who lures her away to take advantage of her worldwide infamy.
In her excellent commentary track on this release, writer Susan White concedes that it can initially be difficult to warm up to Lola Montès as a film, for Ophüls has constructed a melodrama that is not a celebration of romanticism, but rather a chilly treatise on loneliness and exploitation. Fair enough. But while Lola Montès is a fascinating exploration of those themes, I personally couldn’t help but miss the warmth and wit of the trio helmed by Ophüls upon his return to European filmmaking just prior to Lola Montès: La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame De…. Kubrick’s fondness for Ophüls might be thematic as well as technical, and rooted in more than just admiration for camera movement and a quest for perfection, which makes one recall Pauline Kael’s famous adage that “great movies are rarely perfect movies.” Interestingly, Kubrick’s underappreciated Barry Lyndon carries traces of Lola Montès in its main character, and the director’s fascination with his own title protagonist echoes Ophüls’s study of Lola, with both filmmakers constructing majestic, rococo portraitures of essentially hollow characters whose own vanity and desires ultimately leave them alienated and dismayed. And Lola Montès is also admittedly a sly rumination on capitalism, with the spectacle of the film serving as a gaudy commentary on the spectacle within the film, as a private life is exploited into a public one, and the possibility of finding love is quashed.
While I must confess that I still admire Lola Montès more than I am personally fond of it, I would also concede that my opinion is a minority one, and the film is undoubtedly vital viewing. Even as a purely visual experience, Lola Montès is a peerless accomplishment; ironically, this was the first time Ophüls worked in color, Cinemascope, and stereo sound (he reportedly expressed frustrations with all three systems), yet he utilizes each of these tools to stunning effect. Certain individual sequences are justifiably legendary, like the craning and tracking through the circus arena as Lola is introduced and the “needle and thread” scene that follows the throng of servants rushing about during Lola’s introductory meeting with Ludwig. Of course, it would also be the last time Ophüls would complete a film in color, scope, and stereo…or any other format, as Lola Montès was his final finished work. Restored to its original form and made available for home viewing 55 years after its premiere, the film endures as a classic, and the Criterion release is indispensable.
Again, this fully reconstructed 2008 digital restoration was a massive undertaking, with a group of Technicolor technicians working with elements as disparate as the incomplete negative, a rough cut, a faded release print, and original YCM black-and-white color separations, assisted by Max Ophüls’s highly specific original notes on the color schemes, contrasts, and tones, and Marcel Ophüls’s personal recollections of the original prints. The result is breathtaking, and probably the best that Lola Montès will ever look. There are, however, some minor imperfections, as the flesh tones can be inconsistent from scene to scene, and the image is not always as sharp as one would expect (however, this could very well be an issue with the original cinematography, and not related to the restoration). But these are minor quibbles with a dazzling visual presentation. The audio is not without its minor flaws, but it’s generally excellent, and the restoration of the original 4-track magnetic stereo sound also provides some striking directional effects (note that Lola’s statement of her age at the 27:49 mark remains removed in this French version, so the audio dropout is not related to Criterion’s release).
This two-disc release contains a wealth of supplementary features that are mostly quite worthwhile, and demonstrate the difference between the ways in which extras are specifically curated for Criterion releases, and the often random overload of useless bonus features that constitute major-studio special editions. The feature is accompanied by a commentary track by Susan White, author of The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman. White’s commentary is very good, revealing specific details about Ophüls and the film’s production, as well as providing a critical analysis that deepens one’s appreciation of the work. Her recitation does become a bit dry and monotone over time, as she is clearly reading from prepared notes, but it doesn’t detract from the value of the track. The second disc contains two featurettes on Ophüls and Lola Montès. "Max Ophüls Ou Le Plaisir de Tourner" is an hour-long 1965 episode of the French TV program Cineastes de Notre Temps, containing film clips from Ophüls’s oeuvre and interviews with many of his collaborators, focusing on the director’s skill at creating an atmosphere on the set and his love of actors (and also touching upon his occasionally tyrannical approach and cruel wit). Max Ophüls’s son Marcel is, of course, a renowned director in his own right, and he has created Max by Marcel, a 33-minute documentary that stands as a heartfelt tribute, with several engaging anecdotes. In addition, there is the theatrical rerelease trailer, silent footage of lead actress Martine Carol modeling hairstyles featured in the film (it runs less than a full minute), and a booklet with perceptive notes by Gary Giddins and a detailed description of the restoration process.
While I remain ambivalent as to whether the detachment and artifice of the film are wholly successful in conveying Lola’s tale, the canon of critical consensus pretty much renders my isolated opinion moot—and there is still much about the film that I do adore. The restoration is a major accomplishment, and this Criterion release is highly recommended.