Lola Montès Review

Lola Montès (Martine Carol), once the lover of many of the most powerful men in Europe, has been reduced to a circus act. She is billed as “the most scandalous in the world”. At the prompting of the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), she tells her story, beginning with her affair with Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg). She became a dancer, and then eventually the mistress of Louis I, King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook)…

This review is being posted on 6 May 2002, which is the centenary of director Max Ophüls’s birth. Although he completed twenty-four features, his reputation mainly rests on the final seven, three (out of four) made in Hollywood and the remainder in France. Of his earlier films, made in Germany, France, Holland and Italy, only Liebelei (1932) has been in British distribution (on video, now deleted) in the last quarter century. For a long while, Ophüls was dismissed as a maker of decorative but ultimately trivial “women’s pictures”. The central characters of most of films are women who follow the dictates of their hearts – and Ophüls is as frank as the times allowed as to the price they paid for that love. His heroines are quite willing to sleep with, and even bear children by, the men they love, regardless of any marriage vows: it’s their tragedy that that love is rarely reciprocated. It’s a love that is the more intense due to knowledge of its transience, a theme emphasised by Ophüls’s main stylistic trademark, a constantly moving camera. (Those supremely elegant pans, tracks and crane shots – imagine what he could have done with a Steadicam! – were an avowed influence on Stanley Kubrick, amongst other directors. Jacques Demy was another admirer, and dedicated his film Lola to Ophüls.) Ultimately, Ophüls’s films are only trivial if love is a trivial subject: beneath the considerable surface elegance the films tell some bitter truths. Ophüls’s work should be of considerable interest to feminists: his two contemporary films, Caught and The Reckless Moment (both made in Hollywood in 1949 and starring James Mason, the latter recently remade as The Deep End) give us fascinating insights into the position of women in post-WWII America. Like fellow European Douglas Sirk, Ophüls (or Opuls as he was billed in the USA) used the critically-despised form of melodrama to make some sharp critiques of the society around him.

Since Ophüls’s death, his reputation has grown to the point where he is now considered one of the twentieth century’s great filmmakers. Maybe no film is perfect, but Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a heartbreaking story of unrequited love in turn-of-the-century Vienna, comes pretty close. That to me is his absolute masterpiece, though some may prefer Le plaisir (1952) or Madame de… (1953). La ronde (1950) has a place in history as a censorship milestone, but like the two contemporary melodramas it’s a step below Ophüls’s very finest work, to my mind – but recommended all the same.

Lola Montès was Ophüls’s final film, his only one in colour and the then-new process of CinemaScope. It was shot in three versions: German, French and English. Made on a very high budget for its time, it flopped badly and was cut from a premiere length of 140 minutes to the present length. Until recently, the only available version was the French one. (Shorter versions still have been in circulation, and should be avoided.) The disappointment may have been a factor in Ophüls’s premature death from a heart attack in 1957. Of all Ophüls’s films, Lola Montès has probably the biggest cult following, with its defenders claiming it as a masterpiece. Andrew Sarris, quoted on the DVD cover, goes so far as to call it “The greatest film of all time”. I certainly don’t go that far, as Lola Montès is a film of significant flaws, but it’s still a fascinating, beautifully designed work that repays several viewings. Ophüls was a master of composition in the old Academy Ratio, but he was up to the challenge of the wide CinemaScope format. Some of his shots are truly spectacular, not least the opening one, when the camera descends from the rafters to the floor of the circus tent. Ironically, Ophüls wasn’t entirely at home with the wide screen and masked some shots off into a narrower ratio. Anton Walbrook and a young Oskar Werner are the standouts in the cast, and make up for casting weaknesses elsewhere. Peter Ustinov is probably the least interesting of the compere/narrator figures in Ophüls’s later work, especially when compared to the similar function Walbrook played in La ronde. But the major weak link is Martine Carol as Lola. A sex symbol of the time (for nude bathing scenes in historical dramas), Carol simply isn’t up to the demands of the role. Ophüls’s greatest films are partly that due to his partnership with strong leading ladies: think of Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman and Danielle Darrieux in Le plaisir, Madame de… and La ronde, and you’ll get some picture as to how bland Carol is.

Lola Montès is, shamefully, the only one of Ophüls’s films available on DVD (at least in the USA, UK and Australia). It begins with the Janus Films logo and for a few seconds you wonder if a Criterion Edition has been slipped into a Fox Lorber box by mistake. No such luck. (The Janus logo is explained by the fact that Criterion released the film on laserdisc but not, at least so far, on DVD.) Released in 1998, this is one of Fox Lorber’s earlier DVD releases and, like most of their catalogue, is indifferent at best. Importantly, it is in the Scope aspect ratio, though non-anamorphic: the picture is shifted upwards to give a thicker bottom bar for the subtitles, which is likely to cause problems for people watching on a widescreen TV, unless they can understand the French dialogue. (Early CinemaScope films were in 2.55:1, but recent cinema prints of such films crop the left hand side to reduce the picture to today's standard Scope ratio of 2.35:1. The print used to produce this DVD transfer is cropped.) The film was shot in Eastmancolor, which was then inferior to Technicolor, and hence the negative has been prone to fading. Some colour shifts are no doubt due to the original materials, likewise occasional print damage. A general softness and some aliasing problems are more likely to be faults of the transfer. Given the limitations of non-anamorphic NTSC, this is a decent transfer of what’s available – but it’s a film crying out for a digital restoration. You have to wonder what Criterion would do with it.

Lola Montès premiered with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack. All available versions of this film have been in mono, so it’s no great surprise that that is what is on this DVD. It’s serviceable enough, though lacking much in dynamic range and prone to crackling in places.

Extras are basic. There are filmographies for Carol, Ophüls, Walbrook and a selected one for Ustinov. An awards listing (for Ophüls, Walbrook and Ustinov) doesn’t go much further than the obvious: for Ophüls it’s limited to Oscar nominations for the black and white production design of Le plaisir and the adapted screenplay of La ronde. “Production credits” list cast and crew, and would be entirely redundant if the opening of the film listed character names and was in English. There are a meager six chapter stops, though it should be said that the relevant menu page is illustrated by full-motion film clips. And that’s it – nothing about the film’s troubled production, no interview with Ustinov (still alive as I write this), no commentary by an expert on the film, not even a trailer.

I can’t claim that Ophüls is particularly badly served by DVD. Much the same claim could be made for Robert Bresson, to name but one. But when far lesser, and far more obscure, directors are well served by the DVD format, the release of any one of the remaining six of Ophüls’s final seven films, not to mention a proper release of this one, in his centenary year, is long overdue.

UPDATE: Since this review was written, details have become available of a restoration of the full-length German version of Lola Montès, in the correct 2.55:1 aspect ratio and with the original four-track sound mix. For further information, see the June 2002 issue of Sight & Sound. It is to be hoped that this version will be made available on DVD in due course.

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