“Tout Paris” surged into the Marignan Theatre on a Thursday evening, December 22, 1955 for the first public showing of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès. A 140-minute Cinemascope super-production budgeted at 648 million francs with hordes of extras and lavish sets, Lola Montès was the most expensive motion picture made in France up to that time. Its eminently bankable star was Martine Carol, a popular star in period “decollete” and even occasional toplessness in such amiable pot-boilers as Lucrezia Borgia and Caroline Cherie. For his part, Max Ophuls had gained worldwide renown in the Fifties for La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and Madame De . . . The publicity campaign for Lola Montès was built around the provocative subtitle, “la reine du scandale.” Lola turned out to be a “scandale” all right, but not the one the producers had anticipated. Booing, whistling, catcalls, mass walkouts took on “Le Sacre du printemps” proportions. The ensuing daily and weekly reviews were almost universally unfavorable. Obviously, there had been a monumental misunderstanding. It was as if Orson Welles had made a movie of Camille with Betty Grable in the lead, but with all the intricate flashbacks, visual pyrotechnics and distancing ironies of Citizen Kane. The public was clearly not amused, and the producers panicked. They butchered the film—half an hour of the footage seems to have been lost forever—by taking out all the flashbacks, and retelling the plot in chronological sequence. This reedited atrocity was released abroad under the deceptively sleazy title of The Sins of Lola Montès, but it died a quick death at the box office. Ophuls himself died in 1957 at the comparatively early age of 55 amid the ongoing furor over what became his swan song. In the early Sixties a partially reconstituted version of Ophuls’ original vision was revived to the delight of “cineastes” on two continents.
Even at the time of its release there were prominent dissenting voices to the general chorus of derision. André Bazin, François Truffaut, and much of the staff of the Cahiers du cinéma and Positif hailed Lola Montès as an ennobling experience, a baroque masterpiece, a transformation of a conventional subject into an avant-garde adventure, and a spectacular stylistic breakthrough in the utilization of wide screen and color. Le Figaro of January 5, 1956 printed a wildly laudatory open letter on behalf of Lola, signed by Jean Cocteau, Roberto Rosellini, Jacques Becker, Christian Jaque, Jacques Tati, Pierre Kast and Alexander Astruc.
The debate still rages on both sides of the Atlantic, and now the purchasers of this laserdisc rendering of Lola Montès can judge for themselves. This reviewer has already staked his humble reputation on the transcendent glories of this controversial meditation on the perils of celebrity, and the follies of the romantic imagination. Yet this same reviewer can understand the problems some viewers have had with this movie. To begin with, Martine Carol’s “femme fatale” is not remotely in a class with Garbo’s in Camille, Dietrich’s in The Blue Angel, Brook’s in Pandora’s Box, Arletty’s in Les Enfants du Paradis, or even Ava Gardner’s in The Barefoot Contessa. In the role of Lola, Martine Carol projects mediocrity more than mystery, and a fatalistic passivity more than a fiery passion. One is then entranced not by the supposed temptress at the center of the web of scandal, but by the tapestry the director has woven out of the sensuous camera movements that convey Lola and her many lovers to their ultimately divergent destinies. From the opening shot of a circus devoted to the display of a scandalous creature, Ophuls’ camera relentlessly sweeps through time and space, past the changing colors of the changing seasons, of the passing years, and of the opulent settings made to seem ephemeral by the restlessness and rigor of the Ophulsian style. In the process we are treated to three brilliantly sensitive portrayals by Anton Walbrook as King Ludwig of Bavaria, Oskar Werner as a smitten student, and Peter Ustinov as Lola’s seemingly sadistic ringmaster, who is, nonetheless, far from immune to her charms.
The key to what has been called the Ophulsian “mise-en-scene” is Ophuls’ restless camera. Properly speaking, the Ophulsian “mise-en-scene” does not transcend its subject; the “mise-en-scene” is the subject. As Lola herself says, life is movement. The moving camera of Ophuls does not therefore so much comment on life as constitute it.
Lola Montès marks the culmination of Ophuls’ remarkable rapport with a team of extraordinarily gifted collaborators on many of his previous films. These talents include Ophuls’ co-scenarists Annette Wademant and Franz Geiger; his cinematographer Christian Matras; his set designers, Jean d’Eaubonne and Willy Schatz; his costume designer, Georges Annenkov and (for Martine Carol) Marcel Escoffier; and the composer of Lola’s frequently quoted score, Georges Auric.
Ultimately, however, Ophuls himself is the master orchestrator of a dazzling phantasmagoria, a luminously mobile canvas on which is painted the fleeting vanities of the human animal. Yet however mercilessly Ophuls exposes the weaknesses of his characters, he never undermines their spiritual nobility. Hence, as the ringmaster sings so eloquently, no matter how many times Lola surrenders her body, she never surrenders her soul. And when she concludes her death-defying act by allowing all and sundry to touch her hand for one dollar, she is, in a sense, granting absolution to all moviegoers for their inescapably morbid curiosity. Lola Montès is a great film for all lovers of art, for all lovers of film, and, most of all, for all lovers of the art of film. More than thirty years after its night of disgrace, Lola lives as Kane and Kong live, timeless and imperishable.