Criterion // 1955 // 114 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 22nd, 2010
"I like to have at hand the means to go away" -- Lola Montes
I'm a film scholar, and sometimes I can't help it: after I've watched a film (especially a Criterion title) I often try to slot it into an imaginary syllabus. I wonder where the film fits with other films and how to it illuminates the history of film form and reception. Watching Lola Montes made me realize just how easy it would be to cherry pick from the Criterion collection to create a course on media and exploitation. Films as diverse as Sid and Nancy, Ace in the Hole, and The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter raise questions about the relationship between media and the individual, what exploitation is, and if it is possible to exploit yourself. Lola Montes: Criterion Collection slots perfectly into the list of films that address these issues. It's a bonus that Criterion has been instrumental in rescuing and restoring this film, the final masterpiece (and only color film) of Max Ophuls.
Lola Montes is a semi-biopic of Lola Montes, Countess of Landsfeld, a nineteenth century celebrity known for her famous relationships with everyone from Franz Liszt to King Ludwig of Bavaria. We first meet Lola (Martine Carol, Around the World in 80 Days) under the big top as the star attraction, and the rest of the film involves flashbacks to her life as the ringmaster leads us through a show devoted to the famous courtesan.
In an ideal world, all aspects of a film would be orchestrated together to support the theme or narrative. From the subject to the script and on into production and distribution, it would be great if everything supported a unified vision. Sadly, this is not the case and we the filmgoer get confused by films whose trailers don't match the content, or we get surprised by bad casting. Sometimes, though, a film will come along where every single aspect from the subject on up all seem to work in concert: Lola Montes is such a film.
We start with the subject of the film, Lola Montes herself. She was a great example of someone whose claim to fame was that she was famous. She had a string of high-profile affairs and eventually settled with the king of Bavaria. Some were convinced it was gold digging, while others though it a genuine May-December romance. In either case when the revolutions of 1848 swept Europe, her king abdicated and Lola was forced to leave. She found some success as a dancer and scandalous celebrity across the United States before departing to entertain gold diggers in Australia and returning to American shores a few years later. Hers was a jet-setting life style before jets, when many women were still almost strictly mothers and wives. For some she was a selfish narcissist only looking out for (and exploiting) herself, while for others she was a genuinely romantic person trying to live out her dreams.
Max Ophuls leans more towards the latter interpretation in his film of Lola Montes. His portrait of Montes generally takes her point of view, showing her as strong woman who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to ruffle feathers to get it. The episodic structure allows him to cherry pick from the more interesting aspects of Lola's life. His use of bright Technicolor shades adds to the romantic quality of Lola's adventures. However, the director is also willing to capture the darker aspects of her life as well. As an audience we don't ever really leave the big-top that forms the backdrop for the film's action, and within the darkened sphere things do not seem quite so rosy. The ringleader and Lola seem to have a tense relationship, and although she obviously enjoys the perks of fame, and Carol Martine's somewhat wooden performance hints at trouble beneath the surface. There's also a somewhat icy center to Ophuls' structure, a distance that allows the audience to appreciate Lola without necessarily identifying with her.
All this would have been enough to put Lola Montes in the history books. But then, like Lola herself, Lola Montes was the subject of scandal when it performed poorly, was taken out of Ophuls' hands and recut, and continued to do horribly. The rights were bought by a sympathetic party and much of Ophuls' vision was restored. Then, previously lost elements were discovered and a version of the film that closely matches the original version debuted in late 2008. That version is presented by Criterion on this DVD release. The back-from-infamy storyline that dogs the release fits with Lola's life almost too perfectly to be believed.
This was Max Ophuls' only color film, and it is fitting that it looks so amazing in this restored print. The color saturation is positively gorgeous, detail is strong, and the darker scenes are especially rich. The stereo soundtrack also sounds excellent with well-balanced dialogue. The subtitles are bright, clear, and easy to read.
Criterion has released Lola Montes as a two-disc DVD. The first disc's extra is an audio commentary by an Susan White, an expert on Ophuls who has appeared on other discs from the director released by Criterion. She shares a wealth of information on the film's production and reception as well as information on the historical figure of Lola. The second disc includes two different longer features. The first is an episode from French television of the show Cineastes de notre temps made in 1965. It's an hour-long look at the director's career featuring interviews with his stars and collaborators. The second big feature is "Max by Marcel," which is a documentary that Marcel Ophuls made about his father Max. It's slightly more intimate than the previous documentary, but also features interview footage with Max's friends and collaborators. The other two extras are a short test of Martine Carol's "looks" for the film and the trailer for the exhibition of the restored print. Criterion's usual booklet includes an essay by Gary Giddins.
Lola Montes is a bit of an enigma, and the spectacular leanings of Ophuls' biopic do little to mitigate against the lack of intimacy we are likely to feel with his title character. All this is to say that sometimes Lola Montes can be a cold experience, where the spectacle stands in place of emotion. However, when the spectacle is this grand, that's a rather small criticism.
The folks at Criterion have done it again. They've taken a forgotten gem and given it a solid digital polish. Lola Montes is an historically significant film, and now fans can enjoy an audiovisual presentation worthy of Ophuls' vision, with informative extras to boot.
Lola Montes, like its historical predecessor, is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated