Lola Montes Review
The first part of this review is a rewritten version of the one I wrote about the Fox Lorber DVD. That review was posted on 6 May 2002, the centenary of Max Ophuls's birth.
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)…
In 2002, one hundred years after Max Ophuls's birth, Lola Montès was the only one of his films released on DVD in the UK, USA or Australia, in a non-anamorphic disc from Fox Lorber which was sub-par in 2002, let alone now. (See comparison below.) Shoddy treatment for one of the cinema's great directors. Since then, things have improved. Second Sight's edition of Lola Montès completes their releases of Ophuls's final seven features, three made in Hollywood and the remaining four in France, on which Ophuls's reputation stands in the English-speaking world because they are still the ones easiest to see. Ophuls's first Hollywood film, The Exile is missing in action, and let's hope an enterprising DVD label starts delving into the features Ophuls made in Europe between 1932 and 1940. That said, I have reviewed a good Italian DVD of La signora di tutti, while Liebelei has had a UK TV screening and VHS release in the last quarter century. Criterion have also released editions of La Ronde, Le Plaisir and The Earrings of Madame De... which I have not seen.
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 is 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.
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 down to a ninety-minute version that played in chronological order. In addition, the later release versions replaced the original four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack with a mono optical one, which resulted in the film being cropped from its early-Scope ratio of 2.55:1 to the later standard of 2.35:1. This crop was done on the left hand side of each frame, and unbalances many of the shot compositions. To make matters worse, the film was not shot in Technicolor but in Eastmancolour, a process liable to fading over time.
The disappointment of this film's failure may have contributed to 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), and imposed on Ophuls by the producers, 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.
A restoration of the German-language version was made in 2002, and I saw that at the London Film Festival. However, that has not since come out on DVD, and it would appear that the 2008 restoration of the French version is now the official one, and is the source of the present disc.
Second Sight's edition of Lola Montès is released as on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. This version runs 110:33, which includes 1:12 of introductory text and 0:40 of restoration credits.
This DVD transfer maintains the original aspect ratio of 2.55:1, and the film's bold, heightened use of colour. Given the lower definition of anamorphic lenses, especially in an early Scope film such as this, it's inevitable that the results are a little soft. Given the length of the accompanying documentary, it might have been advantageous for this to have been a two-disc set. But as it stands, and in the absence of a Blu-ray edition, this is more than acceptable. One sign of the quality of this restoration is the dress Lola is wearing 51 minutes in: it's now a delicate shade of pale pink, instead of the white it has been in previous versions of the film. The transfer certainly knocks spots off the Fox Lorber edition, as the following screengrab comparison shows: Second Sight first, Fox Lorber second.
The four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack has been rendered as a Dolby Surround mix, that is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix which plays as surround via a ProLogic-enabled amp. It's not the most adventurous soundtrack, reserving the surround for Georges Auric's music score. English subtitles are not removable, or at least I wasn't able to remove them. However, they mostly appear in the bottom black bar.
There are two special features on this DVD. First off is a commentary track by Susan White. This is a detailed talk about the making of the film, its reception and its restoration, but White also pays particular attention to Ophuls's mise-en-scène. A fairly heavyweight commentary, but a very worthwhile one.
However, also on the disc is a lengthy documentary, “Working with Max Ophuls - Lola Montès Revisited” (69:30). It begins with an interview with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who visited the set at the age of twenty. The experience was so overwhelming that it decided that he wanted to be a cinematographer. This documentary covers the film from its inception via its production to its premiere and its subsequent fate. The only cast member interviewed is Peter Ustinov, recorded in 1999 and speaking in German. However, many of the crew also have their say, including (in archive radio interviews) Ophuls's regular production manager Ralph Baum and Ophuls itself. The original director was going to be Christian-Jaque (director of Fanfan la Tulipe and husband of Martine Carol), which would have made for a very different film indeed. Interestingly, it's claimed that Michael Powell was at one point to have made this film, though this is not something supported by Powell's autobiography.
Lola Montès was, due to its director's early death, a grand finale to Ophuls's career. Although I don't think it's his masterpiece, it's a feast for the eyes, especially in its correct aspect ratio and bears several viewings. It's presented very well on Second Sight's DVD.