Tale Of One Of The Original Tabloid Queens Finally Restored To Its Lush Original Version
Max Ophüls' mutilated 1955 masterpiece Lola Montes has needed a proper restoration for more than half a century, and it re-emerges fully redone at just the right moment. While cocaine, limo-exit upskirts, and reality shows were unknown in early 19th-century Europe, the real-life Lola Montez was the great grandmother of today's tabloid queens, modestly talented and far more famous for her lovers and her impunities, the scandal of a society that could still be scandalized. No one with a heart would wish on anyone the fate that meets Lola in this affecting telling of the story, though the Kim Kardashians and Heidi Montags of the world would be doing well to be remembered decades in the future via something like Ophüls' radiant vision, now returned to something as close as possible to its intended state.
Lola Montes opens in a seedy circus ring as the circus master (Peter Ustinov) introduces the evening's entertainment: the life story of the notorious femme fatale Lola Montes, as performed by herself (the lush Martine Carol). Ophüls' restless camera circles the ring, dodging jugglers and stagehands, while Ustinov serves as carnival barker to her disgrace, soliciting two bits to ask the infamous Lola anything: Where did you dance naked? What are your measurements? Where are your children? The woundedness simmering on Carol's face amid the ghastly festivity tallies the terrible cost of simply sitting there night after night.
Ophüls then begins cutting between the ring and flashbacks (a tactic that inspired much of the studio meddling after the film's initial release). Each presents complimentary bits of Lola's rise: her girlhood in colonial India, her return to Europe with her overbearing mother, and her desperate bid to escape an arranged marriage with a rich old man--she steals her mother's lover, a dashing military officer (Ivan Desny), and marries him. He turns out to be a drunken lout whom she leaves, and Lola's path is set: Rather than following convention into a dreary marriage, she takes up with a man for her own purposes and then puts him down for the same. The fact that society, then as now, ultimately punishes those who flout its conventions doesn't daunt her, ensuring that tragedy awaits.
She goes on to affairs with, among others, composer/pianist Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). In Ophüls' rendition, Montes is a proto-feminist, ahead of her time for 1955, much less the mid-1800s. She shares a coach with Liszt, but has her own coach trail them so she's ready to leave whenever she likes; leave she does, but not without affectionately planning sex with the ex when they next meet. In Lola's telling of the latter romance, she all but bumrushes the sovereign, hustling to secure a needed engagement as a dancer. (That's her ostensible talent, though Carol is a bit too stumpy to be believable, which is, perhaps, part of the point.) What begins as a relationship of convenience develops into genuine love, even as it brings them both to ruin.
While Lola is still riding high, she has another fateful encounter with a man--Ustinov's circus master. He visits to offer her a contract as a traveling attraction --she'll be big in America-- knowing long before she does that that's what she will someday be: a salacious footnote. He, too, feels her seductive pull, but he also seems to understand her, and, though she rejects his offer, her him. Perhaps they both know that she'll be back.
Watching Lola Montes on a big screen offers a rich and engaging experience on every level. Pan-and-scan could never do the bravura pageantry of Ophüls' wheeling widescreen justice, and the compounding symbolism of the sumptuous colors, the chandeliers, and the veils--not to mention Lola's relationship dilemmas--could keep teams of film scholars footnoting for weeks. And Ophüls' groundbreaking telling of part of the story through episodes in the circus ring delights and astonishes, as streams of acrobats bounce on and off Lola's onstage bed to stand in for her many lovers and her rise through the ranks of conquests is made physical by a perilous climb up trapezes and wires to the tip of the big top.
No matter how many fringed handrails and outre set pieces Ophüls puts onscreen, Lola delivers a punch that mere spectacle rarely invokes on its own, though adroit filmmaking can. At a number of points, the typical romantic musical score stops dead, leaving only silence to reveal the root loneliness of Lola and her men. When her real taskmaster at the circus is revealed to be a large, grim man in clown make-up, counting money, you tremble for her. Indeed, in the movie's legendary final shot, Ophüls makes it clear that while Lola brought herself to her own fate, those of us who enjoy watching a good rise and fall are never less than complicit.