Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lola Montes (1955)

(Directed by Max Ophuls, 1955, France)

"Lola Montes" was Max Ophuls's last movie, a critical flop on its theatrical release. It is a remarkable achievement, the first French widescreen Cinemascope release and beautifully shot in majestic color. The film depicts the legendary 19th century adventuress Lola Montes, (a Victorian Paris Hilton without the money), forced to tell her scandalous life story in the confines of a circus, presided over by a young Peter Ustinov as an acerbic ringmaster; audience comments make her relive her past, which revolve in nonchronological flashbacks to her affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, as she relives and performs her life on stage nightly.

At the center of the film is the curiously remote actress Martine Carol, a 1950s French sex symbol who was dethroned by Brigitte Bardot. Many commentators describe her in this role as a blank slate which men project their desires on. While true in one sense, in the film's flashbacks she is shown as a strong woman who wants her independence, yet needs the comfort of being a 'kept woman'. Her remoteness is a calculated effect, that of a "femme fatale" (as the circus ringmaster reminds the audience), who continually moves on, from man to man. For such a larger than life subject, the circus setting is appropriate: a place where Lola wanders in her memories surrounded by the gaudy circus atmosphere. Amid the multiple memories and the circus world of performance and artiface, there is the backstage small talk and the 'sotto voce' conversations between the ubiquitous ringmaster and Lola. The multiple worlds of the film are handled in a very sophisticated manner and carries the sweep of the movie forward. This is a majestic and wonderfully beautiful film.

Unfortunately, the only DVD available is from Fox/Lorber and is 110 minutes, while the uncut version of the film (released only in Europe) is 144 minutes. Ophuls argued with producers for the longer cut, and died two years after the film was released. "Lola Montes" is a worthy example of a film that needs restoration, hopefully in the future, a company like Criterion will release a fully restored version.

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