Even before Andrew Sarris fanned the flames of auteur-theory wars by proclaiming it to be the greatest film of all time, Lola Montès had always been an object of controversy. Extravagantly over-budgeted, heavily edited after hostile French screenings, and released in three different languages, it was from the start designed as an all-or-nothing gamble, an attempt to use its novelettish subject as a codex for everything its maker, Max Ophüls, stood for. As such, the filmmaker’s obsessive concerns with the passage of time and female beauty (and its exploitation) take center stage—literally in this case, as the story unfurls largely in the three-ring arena of a 19th-century circus. The main attraction at the center of the swarming trapeze artists and costumed dwarves is the eponymous heroine (Martine Carol), an aging courtesan whose sole claim of fame, a list of illustrious lovers during her youthful romps throughout Europe, fills the big top with curious, salacious masses.
As sawdust-and-tinsel reenactments of past scandals parade before her, Lola’s memories flood the screen. From her early days as an eager ingénue to her flings with Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), her path is obscured by dreams and romantic impossibilities, visualized by the breaking up of the widescreen with pillars, veils, color filters, nets and frames within frames. It is this romantic drive, however, that helps Lola through her life’s many ascensions and declines: A royal mistress turned sideshow freak, she is pelted with tawdry questions and sells kisses for dollars yet regrets none of her decisions as a woman ensnared by the trapdoors of love. “My life is whirling before me,” she confides to her assistant between circus acts, and Ophüls’s overpowering camerawork, forever tracking, circling and gliding, maps out an existence keyed to the vertiginous highs and lows of emotional fantasies. Her ringmaster-husband (Peter Ustinov) may crack the whip, but it’s Lola, contemplating her life from her platform, who, not unlike Simone Simon’s spurned model at the end of Le Plaisir, defies objectification by remaining true to her feelings even at the edge of the abyss.
A bodice-ripper invested with the profundity of a Stendhal novel, Lola Montès is also, even more than La Ronde, Ophüls’s definite commentary on movie-watching. It’s surely no accident that the circus arena, with its opulent chandeliers, choreographed movement and behind-the-scenes clutter, is very transparently a movie set, a self-reflexive contraption which, as Lola sits on a revolving stage and is consumed by the eyes in the dark, seems to both exalt and engulf the heroine. It’s here that Martine Carol’s lack of charisma in the title role becomes an advantage: Many think she gives the film a hollow center, but I believe her limitations are necessary for a part that crystallizes the audience’s own role in the cinematic process, that of projecting their own desire onto celluloid surfaces. The Earrings of Madame de… is a smoother and more precise valse romantique, but Lola Montès is Ophüls’s boldest vision of film as a medium that reveres beauty in order to both nurture and mock dreams. After their own sobering affair with the film, viewers are left to echo Liszt’s compliment to Lola: “Thank you for the illusion.”