You can’t keep a good woman, or a great movie about a good woman, down. By all accounts, goodness in the real Lola Montez reflected the vagaries of character, not talent. She was, as Cosmo Brown says of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, a triple threat: could not sing, act, or especially dance. But she must have had something beyond her enchanting beauty and the torrent of fabrications with which she recast herself from County Sligo–born Eliza Gilbert to Spanish queen of the tarantella, her signature dance—Lola whirled feverishly as tiny rubber spiders flew from the folds of her hiked skirts.
In 1861, having reclaimed her Irish name, Montez died of pneumonia, at thirty-nine, an impoverished Swedenborgian religieuse living on the west side of Manhattan’s Seventeenth Street, her legacy a saga that would reduce many biographers to a babble of probablys, possiblys, and almost certainlys. She had enthralled cities on three continents, not least San Francisco in 1853. Despite unanimous derision of her thespian abilities (she starred in her own productions of the opera Maritana, Ponsard’s Charlotte Corday, and her Lola Montez in Bavaria, inspiring a stream of parodies), a reporter for the Alta California described Montez as a “very comet of her sex . . . flying through space, alone, unguided, reckless, and undestined.” He speculated that to know her “noble” heart would “doubtless turn the lip that whispers busy scandal white with shame.” Settling briefly in the gold rush sanctuary of Grass Valley, Montez was immortalized by miners, who named the area’s highest peak Mount Lola.
Swathed in rumors of revolution and a Byzantine trail of eminent lovers—rumors she somehow managed to encourage and deny—the Countess of Landsfeld, a title given Lola by Bavaria’s Ludwig I, even won over Grass Valley women, who admired her way with children (Lola inspired six-year-old Lotta Crabtree, who went on to enjoy great renown on the stage); critics (Lola challenged them to duels); and propriety (Lola smoked in public). In her lively 1928 narrative of Lola’s West Coast exploits, Constance Rourke writes: “By all rules, at least the women of the village should have outlawed Lola Montez. There was indeed a pause, a struggle; then into the brief chaos stepped a few resolute spirits; and as result Lola continued to do as she chose, with only casual criticism, because she was beautiful and unexpected, and because tolerance was abroad in California as an almost explosive element.”
“Beautiful and unexpected”: the phrase applies equally well to Max Ophuls’s 1955 masterpiece, which also met with blanket derision and, worse, the addled fear of its producers, who thought they could recoup their investment by butchering one of the most innovative and elaborately wrought spectacles in cinema history. Mauled by hacks, faded by time, Lola Montès—Ophuls’s last film, and his only one in color and CinemaScope—has survived, miraculously, every indignity. After the hooting at its infamous premiere, it was championed by a handful of filmmakers and critics, among them François Truffaut, Marcel Ophuls (Max’s son), and Andrew Sarris, whose intrepid claim that it was “the greatest film of all time” forced everyone else to see it, if only to lambaste Sarris, guaranteeing him a place among the cinema’s true gallants.
Even so, Lola Montès languished in various states of undress until 1968, when most of the director’s intentions were restored. Another four decades would pass before digitization and resolve made the present version possible. We can thank Pierre Braunberger, who acquired the film rights; Laurence Braunberger, who took over the restoration from her father after his death; Marcel Ophuls, who supervised the work; and the Thomson Foundation for Film and Television Heritage, the Franco-American Cultural Fund, and the Cinémathèque française for financial and other help. This 2008 rendering, shown with much success at Cannes and Telluride, and now released by Criterion, gives us the 1955 premiere version, with the original color design and correct framing, and the challenging stereophonic and multilingual soundtrack. Lola Montès has never looked or sounded better.
“Life for me is . . . a movement,” says the movie’s Lola. “My life is whirling in my head,” she frets. Few would have been surprised if Ophuls—the bard of pictorial motion, whose camera doesn’t simply permit us to see but rather, like an enthusiastic friend, pulls us into the whirl of life—had made those statements about himself. Max and Lola promised to be a couple made in dolly-shot heaven. Yet his Lola is far removed from history’s spitfire dervish. More often than not, the camera circles or closes in on her recumbent on a divan or fixed on a platform, as inert as a wedding cake ornament. If Lola Montès is a film infatuated with motion, its heroine is often a study in motion denied. This is nothing like a conventional movie biography. It is, instead, a profound meditation on the presumptions and limitations of all biography. So much has been written about the director’s virtuosity that relatively little is said about his scrupulous treatment of truth, power, gender, compromise, the selling of the self.
Lola Montez, a woman famous for making herself infamous by romping across nations, continent to continent (including Australia), spinning like a frenzied top in senorita drag, was an ideal subject for Ophuls, whose films are no less besotted by masks and vanity than by movement. Yet the film did not originate with him; he wasn’t even the first choice of its backers. Nor was it Ophuls’s idea to work with the hack writer Cécil Saint-Laurent (known for best-selling historical romances and a history of women’s undergarments that are no longer read in France or anywhere else) or the teasing star of boudoir melodramas Martine Carol, celebrated for the hourglass figure she generously displayed in bathtub scenes. Indeed, in the end, Ophuls did not work with Saint-Laurent, whose screen credit was merely part of the production fanfare and a beard for Ophuls’s free interpretation of Lola’s story (although Saint-Laurent did eventually write an unimportant book on Montez).
Carol, however, turned out to be a blessing, though admittedly this is a minority view. Her stony beauty encouraged Ophuls to objectify Lola in a way that would not have been possible with a more expressive actor. This is a film that is often intent on keeping its emotional distance. In transforming the immodestly blonde Carol into a corseted brunette, Ophuls created an image surprisingly close to portraits of the real Lola, while emphasizing the cryptic nature of sexual allure. Had he been able to hire Gina Lollobrigida, he might have given us the spider dance Lola; with Danielle Darrieux, Jeanne Moreau, or Ingrid Bergman, he might have given us a contemplative, flirtatious, commanding Lola. With Carol, he presents Lola as a prisoner of sex, and draws a cinematic line—a tracking shot, of course—between the waxen object of our curiosity and her unknowable interior life.
Interiority is objectified on two levels: in the flashbacks, which invariably contradict the iniquitous, rhetorically mawkish ringmaster (Peter Ustinov, shot with merciless detachment), and in the marvelously kaleidoscopic activity of the circus. This tent, with its life-size, pint-size, pictorial, revolving, climbing, falling, prancing, juggling iterations of Lola and the rest of the dramatis personae, along with its multidimensional floating and fleeting objects, suggests at times nothing so much as the inside of her head: the landscape of recollection, where memories may hang from a thread (a bobbing crown) or climb a tightrope straight up—not to the stars (which Lola will glimpse only once, in the remembrance of her curtailed childhood) but to the tent’s closed peak. The real Montez gave lectures, receiving a higher fee than Dickens during their respective American tours. But she never appeared in a circus or toured as a sideshow act, unlike other notorious figures, from Robert Ford to Evelyn Nesbit to the fallen stars of today’s talk show confessionals. No, the circus is Ophuls’s inspired tour de force, its skull-like claustrophobia heightened by the absence of a single shot to place it in the larger world. We enter the big top at the start, and exit when the camera forces us backward, away from the arena, at which point a curtain shuts us out. There is no outside, no reality beyond the tent and Lola’s memory.
Lola Montès is the kind of flamboyant yet meticulous film that rewards the spectator’s age and experience: the more we bring to it, the more we take away. Its remarkable structure can be approached in diverse ways. This annotation, borrowing a musical formulation, parses the film into six movements and a transition.
The first part opens with a shot that tracks descending chandeliers to reveal a conductor, outfitted as Uncle Sam, leading a blackface orchestra in a New Orleans circus. The recurring motif of masks is thus introduced with patriotic irony: we are in the antebellum South, at the height of minstrelsy. The ringmaster snaps his impotent whip, promising the “most sensational act of the century” and a “bloodthirsty monster with the eyes of an angel.” The camera tracks backward through two lines of faux Lolas, juggling ninepins. In a film obsessed with movement—lateral, circular, rising, falling—these shots augur the finale of Lola’s acrobatic dive and the simultaneous entrance and exit of two audiences: the men lining up in the film and us, in thrall to the film, forced from the tent and consequently the movie.
The costumed company hustles into the ring as a heart hangs prominently in the air. Suddenly, the ringmaster rises from the netherworld via a trapdoor, vowing “the truth, nothing but the truth.” Truth is the one thing he won’t deliver and has no interest in delivering; his profession is ballyhoo, la publicité. Now, finally, we glimpse Lola, lifted and set down on a circular platform, moved but not moving. Another descending chandelier signals a medium close-up of Lola, colored by a blue filter (the first of three such shots) and looking startled, nervous, trapped. The ringmaster invites intimate questions, at two bits a throw, but he rejects them as irrelevant or answers them himself. Does she prefer love or money? “Both,” he answers, introducing one of the movie’s central themes.
The business of prostitution hovers over this film, but Ophuls makes a clear distinction between prostituting one’s body (in Ophulsian theology, a venial sin at most) and selling one’s soul (a mortal sin at least). Ophuls loves Lola, and whatever the real Lola was, his Lola is not a whore, not even a courtesan, to use the softer term granted mistresses of the court. True, she will get a palace from her Bavarian king, but the film depicts theirs as a genuine love match. Elsewhere, sex is a means of escape or an escapade in pleasure. Money does not change hands. Not until she descends, in the ringmaster’s phrase, “from kingdom to carnival,” sacrificing sexual independence and the possibility of love (however fleeting) for the commerce of show business, does she put herself on the market. At this point, even we in the bleachers are exhorted by the ringmaster to pay for our pleasure.
Ophuls had nothing against whores; he treats them with humor and respect in La ronde and Le plaisir. He was, however, impatient with soulless capitalism, as in his early Dutch film Comedy of Money, in which a singing ringmaster explicates corruption in the market. By 1955, Ophuls had endured his own experience with ballyhoo in Hollywood, and it is tempting to see Lola as a fragile artiste at the mercy of the machinations of callous producers. Ophuls is deeper than that, though. If Lola in the New World is bound by the constraints of a three-ring circus, how did she fare in the old one? This question brings us to the second movement and the first flashback, representing the end of her liaison with Franz Liszt. Our initial introduction to an earlier Lola finds her as placid with ennui
as she is in the circus.
For the record, the real Lola knew Liszt in Dresden in 1843 but didn’t travel with him and may never have slept with him; her most thorough biographer, Bruce Seymour, could not undermine doubts cast on the affair by Liszt’s best biographer, Alan Walker. Ophuls, however, imagines them as artistic competitors, with separate coaches so that she can escape at will. We see her reclining with cigar, moved but not moving, languidly seducing him as a farewell gesture by undoing his cravat—an action that will be reprised when she claims the fraternal scarf of Oskar Werner’s student.
By beginning the flashback sequences with Liszt, the film establishes Lola as an adventuress with celebrity connections while showing that, far from being on the make, she possesses a mature sense of love’s labors and the tussle for power that is the price of emancipation—an issue played out repeatedly as she flees her mother, her husband, and Bavarian mobs. The ringmaster will later tell her: “Talent doesn’t interest me . . . only power and efficiency.” Here the contest is treated lightly: Liszt expects dancers to follow his music, not the reverse. Cut to the inn, as servants move her baggage, enacting the whirlwind that Lola claims is her life but has yet to enact. She stands like a mannequin in a dress so vibrantly green in this print that it can hardly fail to recall the one Scarlett O’Hara fashions from her curtains. After Lola bids Liszt good-bye, her coach heads for the horizon.
Part three: At the circus, Lola appears caged as the ringmaster announces that she will now look back at how “her extraordinary career took root in the beautiful and generous soil of a happy family life.” The ringmaster controls the narrative—that is, the order in which the tales are chronicled. Yet Lola’s memories are utterly autonomous, contradicting every sentimental or slanderous comment he makes. He speaks of her “happy youth” and “radiant adolescence” as we see her mother, a whore with a heart of lead, attempt to pimp her out to an old man.
In this episode, Ophuls tries something that was not acceptable to audiences at the time but that seems effective and postmodern now. Lola at sixteen is played by Carol (thirty-four) not as a girl but as her mature self dressed as a girl—in line with the way memory actually works. In 1955, audiences howled in disbelief when Lola answered the question about her age, and so her line was wiped off the soundtrack. (It’s still missing.) Yet this vital sequence, in which Lola travels with her mother by ship to Europe, derives its heartrending power from the hapless dislocation of Carol’s Lola, literally at sea in another time. Ophuls underscores her predicament with a sublime tracking shot as she walks from her sleeping quarters to find her mother dancing, and then to the bow, where she looks at the stars. Lola’s stroll, her most decisive movement in the film thus far, is followed by other long walks, as the scene switches to Paris: climbing the theater stairs after her mother, and then racing to freedom with a dare hurled at her mother’s young lover—“Marry me!” Meanwhile, in the present, as Lola sits on the circus platform, another level is added to the narrative, in the guise of a doctor concerned with her failing health.
The fourth movement is divided into two sections separated by the transition, which develops the doctor’s role. The first part is set in the circus, where Lola is obliged to reenact her catastrophic marriage. At this point, we are invited to ponder which is the more bizarre image: Lola remembering herself at sixteen or Lola pretending, at the command of the ringmaster, to be “virginal and pure,” draped in white for the rubes in the tent. No wonder her life is whirling in her head. And the film is whirling too, as the camera helps create three concentric circles: Lola on her round platform rotates to the left; the outer platform that surrounds her rotates to the right; the camera moves to the left.
Truth is again channeled in contrary directions too. A flashback shows Lola’s escape from an alcoholic, philandering husband as the ringmaster tells the crowd of her marital bliss. It’s okay to present Lola as the apex of scandalous womanhood, but marriage and maternal love are sacred, and the ringmaster doesn’t want to make her out to be a victim (her husband contemptuously calls her “the eternal victim”). The rubes won’t pay to feel sorry for her, not when they’ve come to worship the dark side of the eternal feminine.
After the escape (Lola bites the hand that fed her), we return again to the tent, where Lola, in a tutu and backed by a corps of male dancers with coins for heads, re-creates her training as a dancer—in ballet, no less. Lover follows lover as the ringmaster sings, to Georges Auric’s thick pastry of a melody: “You give your body, but you keep your soul.” In placing her on a tightrope, Ophuls grants Lola a talent that not even she would have claimed for herself, that of daredevil acrobat.
The action is interrupted by the crucial transitional passage, in which the doctor confronts the owner of the Mammoth Circus, a stogie-chomping, white-faced clown who dons his jacket to talk business. The doctor warns that the climax of her act is insanely dangerous. From now on, the film will unfold on three alternating levels: circus (commerce and lies), flashbacks (love and truth), and backstage (mortality and calculation).
In the conclusion to part four, Lola rises in a high headdress from belowground, once again a transported statue. Installed on a conveyor belt, she re-creates apocryphal stories or outright fictions, including nude bathing for a sultan. An affair with a conductor brings her, via flashback, to a band shell on the Riviera, where, with dynamic movement matched by the camera, she bestows his gifts of jewelry on the wife he tried to keep secret. (The ringmaster rewards her ethics with a cigar, which he proceeds to sell to the audience “in ten varieties.”) The ringmaster shows up in the same flashback, boasting that he can make a star of her, as he has done for a piano-playing elephant, and get her more money than Barnum or Buffalo Bill. The ringmaster—Ustinov has his best scene here—is odious but vulnerable; in Ophuls’s cinema, as in Renoir’s, everyone has his reasons. Lola declines, knowing that if she accepts his offer, it will be the end of her. Back at the circus, a recital of putative lovers takes acrobatic Lola up ropes and ladders to the pinnacle of the tent and the high point of her legend. With the second blue-filtered portrait as prelude, she travels back in time to Bavaria.
The fifth section is a tour de force, heightened by the incisive performance of Anton Walbrook as Ludwig I, who is rendered with a wit and intelligence that were evidently denied the real monarch. Oskar Werner’s vain but naive student is also based on a (minor) historical character, Elias Peissner, the leader of the Alemannia fraternity, formed in Lola’s honor. Ophuls simplifies the relationships: apparently, Lola swore fidelity to Peissner, insisting that she loved Ludwig only as a father, thus two-timing them both. Peissner boldly confronted the king, who financed his travels to the United States, where he taught languages until, promoted to colonel as an enlisted man in the Union army, he was killed during the Civil War. For Ophuls’s purposes, the student shows that Lola dispenses her favors freely and inspires fierce loyalty, representing to the fraternal revolutionaries “love, freedom, everything [the conservatives] detest!”
Audiences of 1955 did not much appreciate the bait-and-switch approach that gives this episode much of its drollery. Ophuls will not let us see Lola dance—neither her unsuccessful audition (her maid remarks, “As always, they didn’t like the bolero”) nor her royal performance (we see the king tapping his fingers in time); nor do we get to see her illustrious breasts (we get extended business about finding a needle and thread to sew up her ripped bodice). But Lola is no longer a waxen figure! The Lola who on the Riviera dashed to confront her lover’s wife now predominates, as she gallops to meet the king, and charms him with a single step of a Spanish fandango—no more than a pose, really.
The camera, too, is more fanciful than ever, altering the frame to suggest a traditional, pre-CinemaScope field, recalling iris effects of the silent cinema to underscore Lola’s royal conquest. At the theater, after her performance, the camera rises from the king (and his indulgent queen) to the cheap seats, where her student lover cheers, then rises higher to settle on the chandelier. Two brief, consecutive scenes, each done in a single shot, are particularly savory. First, Ludwig arrives at a painter’s loft, in search of a slow-working artist who will extend Lola’s stay in Bavaria for the time required to paint her portrait. Who needs montage? Ludwig walks quickly around the room for ninety seconds while the camera keeps effortless pace with him. This is followed immediately by a wickedly brilliant tableau (almost a tableau vivant), as the camera takes in Lola, posing in a fake sled against a snowy mural, her face encircled by white fur, and a table at which the producer-king and the director-painter negotiate over their work, which stands behind them and beside the model, the immobile star on the canvas replicating Lola in the sled except that her head is additionally circled by a halo—as though she were the heroine in one of those Leni Riefenstahl mountain epics.
The art venture has two punch lines. The first is the finished painting, Lola as an odalisque, which no one dares hang (not even Lola, who does not want to advertise her wares). The second, triggered by the first, is the king’s realization that his problem is not how to keep Lola around but how to get rid of her—a difficulty that escalates when he hears of incipient protests while visiting an ear doctor. Soon, the rabble assaults the palace, and as the musical score resorts to unembarrassed melodrama, a Caligari-like diplomat arrives with an ultimatum. Lola runs through catacombs to escape and, once safe in her getaway carriage, lapses into the languorous Lola of the early scenes, reclining with cigar in hand. As Tanya says of Quinlan in Touch of Evil, her “future is all used up.”
The sixth and final movement is itself a circus trick. Lola, a ghost of her former self, must perform the climax of her act, which we learn she has been doing for an astonishing four months—astonishing because even a top acrobat in the best of health would have trouble diving from a high-wire platform onto an object no larger than a mattress. This, we are told, she has done show after show without a net, though it’s impossible to know where the net would be. Under the mattress? The doctor nonetheless argues for a net, which the ringmaster tricks Lola out of. Now we have the last blue-filter portrait, followed by a genuine close-up as the net is collapsed. Lola is dizzy, wavering, colorless; she has no more chance of surviving her fall than Scottie does his in the preamble to Vertigo. But, of course, she does survive, promptly resurrected as a captive in the menagerie, selling kisses for a dollar, pimped out to the end. Yet can anyone doubt that Lola remains triumphant, an object of veneration for all trusting suckers everywhere, including Max Ophuls, who believed that character is a kind of talent? His camera tracks back for a hundred glorious seconds before he allows the curtain to be drawn, leaving Lola in peace, or at least enjoying the bliss of celebrity homage, until, once more, we hit “Play” and return to the big top.
Gary Giddins is the author of several books about music, including Visions of Jazz, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, and the recent Jazz (with Scott DeVeaux). His writing on film is collected in Faces in the Crowd, Natural Selection, and the forthcoming Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema. He teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center.