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Our review of Lola Montes: Criterion Collection, published February 22nd, 2010, is also available.
Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets…
"And now, ladies and gentleman, the moment you've all been waiting for! The most sensational act of the century: a creature a hundred times more murderous than any beast in our menagerie, a bloodthirsty monster with the eyes of an angel. Lola Montes, the Countess Maria Dolores of Landsfield…in the flesh!"—Circus Master
Facts of the Case
In her mid-30s, Lola Montes (Martine Carol, Madame du Barry) has become the main attraction in a travelling circus. Orchestrated by a rotund ringmaster (Peter Ustinov, Spartacus), Lola is inquired about her tumultuous life by the audience as various circus performers "re-enact" her past events of sex and scandal. As these acts are going on, Lola recalls those events vividly, including her hiring as mistress/courtesan to Ludwig I, King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook, The Red Shoes).
Love it or hate it, celebrity obsession is a facet of modern-day society. For some reason, people actually give a damn if Britney shows her clam, checking into TMZ weekly to see what mischief she and others are up to. Remember the media blitz surrounding Paris Hilton's return to jail, or Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade? Dozens of magazines published every month love to get the latest news on a celeb's lovelife, surgery, or scandalous activities in general. Of course, our fascination with the privileged has existed for centuries, and it will continue so long as we have celebrities. Rarely has this idolization been slapped in our faces with contempt, depicting us as hungry voyeurs out for gossip fixes. French filmmaker Max Ophuls is one of the few who accomplishes this goal with style and spectacle.
In Lola Montes, Ophuls looks at one of the most infamous celebrities in the 19th century. Well, sort of. This is far from a traditional biography, as Ophuls uses Lola's lurid history as a springboard for a deep meditation on fame fetish and our addiction to it. Montez was infamous not because of her thespian skills (or lack thereof), but rather her penchant for creating scandal via numerous affairs and her stint as a courtesan. Many episodes of her life are loosely told in flashback, stitched together in rapid succession as if they are constantly repeated in Lola's memory. At one point, Lola laments "my life is whirling around in my head." Ophuls does a magnificent job emphasizing this with his trademark camera movements.
Ophuls doesn't look at Lola as a tragic figure, nor as a misunderstood creature of beauty. He takes a largely neutral stance, painting a portrait of Lola using her wild exploits as shades. Lola is given few lines of dialogue, and her flashbacks don't begin until the circus audience starts bombarding her with questions. At first, one asks how many affairs she's had; another then asks if she remembers the past. Only then do we flashback to one of her many sexual liaisons as the circus performers "re-enact" the moment. Clearly, the circus spectacle serves as a metaphor for the drama in Lola's life; whether it involves sex, marriage, modeling or dancing. Ophuls doesn't target Ustinov and the circus performers, however, but the audience who craves such tableau extravaganzas. After all, they are paying to feed themselves on a woman's infamy.
Subtle social commentary out of the way, Lola Montes is a great visual playground for Ophuls to swing his camera around. This was his first film in color and CinemaScope, and he takes full advantage of both the palette and the process. The sweeping shots of the French countryside are indeed beautiful, but mere slam-dunks as opposed to his eye for detail shooting indoors. The flashbacks are chock full of vertical and horizontal pans taking in the atmosphere while also following the characters without losing sight of the situations. Consequently, the circus sequences are punctuated by his supreme dolly shots. There's a genuinely surreal aspect achieved in much Lola Montes thanks to Ophuls' superlative direction.
Lola Montes may be a great film, but its initial reception was, to put it delicately, disappointing beyond words. Some quarters applauded Ophuls' spellbinding vision, but most audiences were turned off, particularly by the haphazard nature of the flashbacks, which never adhered to a specific timeline. Cuts were made by not only by the producers but also by Ophuls himself, who wanted to financially salvage the film, and—to an extant—save his reputation. The director died in 1957, and it was nine years later when a significant restoration effort was made according to Ophuls' original intentions. Aside from scene-shifting and numerous cuts, Lola Montes was also jerry-rigged in terms of the various spoken languages and sound elements, so a full restoration was still warranted. Finally, in 2008, the Cinematheque francaise was able to correct practically every compromise, thanks to advances in digital technology.
Presented in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1, minus the cropping that plagued the cut versions, Lola Montes (Blu-ray) sports the most vibrant colors you could ask for. The picture is so sharp you could almost feel Georges Annenkov's plush costumes and smell the paint coating Robert Christides' spectacular sets. The flesh tones are exceptionally natural, with Carol's luscious beauty enhanced to the zenith. Black levels are also solid as a rock. The non-anamorphic print on the Blu-ray doesn't have a hint of grain or the slightest of scratches, as all have been digitally removed by several restoration platforms. Although the restoration notes specify required visual effects needed to fix other anomalies, you can never really tell. Criterion's devotion to important films is once again undisputed; this is one of the best prints they've ever offered.
Originally, the soundtrack to Lola Montes was recorded in 4-track magnetic stereo, a common format for films shot in CinemaScope. The original tracks were re-mastered at 24-bit and all audible hiccups have been manually removed. The result is an exceptionally clean DTS-HD 3.0 Master Audio track. The dialogue consists of French, German and even a little English; all properly placed in compliance with the original theatrical presentation. Every word is crystal clear in the center channel, with white, easy-to-read English subtitles provided on the bottom of the print. Finally, the music by Georges Auric soars and fills up the left and right speakers with generous clarity.
Criterion continues to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to extras. First up is an engaging and informative commentary by Ophuls' expert Susan White. She goes into great detail about the film's troubled history, Ophuls' approach and his incorporation of symbols. White bravely labels Lola Montes as the greatest film ever made; this view is shared by author Gary Giddins, who wrote the essay "Loving Lola," found in the companion booklet. Next up is a 1965 episode of the French program Cineastes de notre temps, where many of the director's collaborators, including muse Danielle Derrieux (The Earrings Of Madame de…), talk about his work and impact on cinema. The program runs approximately 53 minutes and is worthwhile, although be prepared for the rather shoddy video quality. Another extra is Max By Marcel, a 33-minute short where the director's son Marcel talks about his role as assistant director on his father's film. There's also one minute of silent footage showing Carol going through a series of hair tests and a re-release trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Lola Montes is certainly grand on artistic and technical levels, I have one complaint. As gorgeous as Martine Carol is, her performance is alarmingly average, lacking the fire and bite her co-stars—particularly Ustinov—convey. Even White notes the inconsistencies in Carol's portrayal of Montes. Carol certainly gives the woman an air of mystery, yet she seems surprised by the scandalous trap she puts herself in later in the film when she becomes involved with the King of Bavaria. Carol's high point is her first meeting with Ustinov, and we clearly see how they will become a match made in heaven (in a romantic way, of course). Otherwise, she's so cold and quiet in the flashbacks it's difficult to register what she's actually feeling. This may have been intentional on Ophuls' part so we don't generate sympathy for her, but a bit of character insight still would have been welcome.
A director's final film is given a lavish restoration by the Cinematheque francaise, resulting in a must-buy for Orphuls devotees and classic film buffs alike. Newcomers would benefit more from a rental but, either way, Lola Montes is a sight to behold. Plus, kudos to Criterion for delivering the goods yet again, with a stellar treatment and a healthy selection of bonus features.
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