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"Lola Montes is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time."
Film critic Andrew Sarris
"There are films that demand undivided attention. Lola Montes is one of them."
Film critic-director Francois Truffaut
"The audience is expecting a cream cake, but instead it gets a punch in the stomach!"
Director Max Ophuls
"I'm not a scandal machine. I always do what I like. That's all!"
Martine Carol, Lola Montes
Director Max Ophuls' 1955 masterpiece Lola Montes is now as much the stuff of legend as its title character, the notorious 19th century dancer and seductress whose affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria helped inspire a revolution. And on its first release it was almost as much the subject of scandal as Montes had been during her lifetime.
Though critics have debated the film's specific merits, particularly leading lady Martine Carol's performance, few contest the brilliance of its conception. Ophuls sets his story in a circus devoted to Lola's lives and loves. As tableaux vivants act out the high points of her past, flashbacks reveal them to the audience, at least as the character wishes to remember them (the script incorporates apocryphal incidents, including an impromptu strip on her first meeting with Ludwig I). Although plagued with a weak heart, she performs a climactic daredevil stunt, strengthened by the knowledge that the audience is filled with men who have paid just to look at her. At the end, the audience lines up to pay for the privilege of kissing her hand as she sits in a wooden cage. The camera dollies back and upward, and curtains close, ending an exercise in calculated artifice.
Ophuls had never worked in color before and, as was the practice in Europe at the time, had to use Eastmancolor rather than the more flexible Technicolor. Yet he and cameraman Christian Matras (who shot all of his late European films), created a lush look with a color palette that varies subtly from season to season. This was also Ophuls' only film in Cinemascope, a format many directors have derided as unwieldy. The director took the opportunity to fill the screen with décor, particularly during scenes depicting Lola's relationship with Ludwig I, so that she seems to be drowning in a sea of opulence. He also found ways to break up the frame, using pillars and curtains to cut off the ends of the screen and create vivid images of confinement.
Although Carol is a decidedly limited actress, some critics have suggested that her empty beauty provides the perfect vehicle for Ophuls' vision of Montes, suggesting an inner void that can only be filled by the attention of the men almost compulsively drawn to her. Moreover, Ophuls created a magnetic aura for the star through the way she was lighted and filmed. Rarely does he cut to reaction shots or close-ups of her co-stars. Instead, he brings them into the frame where Lola already has been established. In addition, the constantly moving camera, an Ophuls trademark, almost completely upstages the leading lady's acting deficiencies. And Carol's star status -- she was the number one French sex symbol of the '50s, as popular for her on-screen décolleté as for her off-screen scandals -- bought Ophuls the budget he needed to realize his vision of the story. When she signed for the production, Gamma Film raised the budget to $2 million, the highest of any post-war European film to that time.
The project had originated with Gamma Film out of the desire to create a lavish, period romance. They hired Cecil Saint-Laurent, whose novel Caroline Cherie had inspired Carol's 1951 breakthrough film, to write the screenplay. They only hired Ophuls to direct when their other choices -- including Michael Powell and Carol's husband, Christian-Jacque -- weren't available. Ophuls threw out Saint-Laurent's script, preferring to work with Annette Wademant, who had co-scripted his Madame de... (1953), and Jacques Natanson, his collaborator on La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1952). The studio credited Saint-Laurent as author of the novel La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montes, which didn't actually exist.
Ophuls surrounded Carol with a solid cast, headed by Anton Walbrook as Ludwig I, Oskar Werner as a student revolutionary and Peter Ustinov as the Ring Master. He shot the film in Germany, Austria and France in three different versions - French, German and English (Ustinov wrote the English-language dialogue). Then he worked with three different editors, each in his own room, on the three different versions.
Lola Montes had been eagerly anticipated because of its budget and Carol's presence. Yet the Paris opening on a rainy December day was a disaster. Audiences expecting a lush, mildly titillating romance were not ready for what was ultimately a trenchant commentary on the nature of celebrity. Nor did they want to follow a story that jumped around in time. Many walked out, warning those in line to save their time and money. Others jeered the screen. Reviews in the popular press were scathing, with many critics complaining that the film's plot tastelessly paralleled Carol's own off-screen scandals. Only the new generation of critics headed by Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard understood what Ophuls was doing. In a panic, the producers demanded a new cut. The director created a 110-minute version his son, documentarian Marcel Ophuls, considers the definitive Lola Montes, but that wasn't enough for the producers. Even when a group of filmmakers including Jean Cocteau, Roberto Rossellini and Jacques Tati sent a letter to the newspaper Le Figaro demanding that Gamma release Ophuls' version, the producers created their own. At 91 minutes, their cut ran in strict chronological order and died quickly (it was released in many markets, including the U.S., as The Sins of Lola Montes). Many blame his battles over Lola Montes for Ophuls' fatal heart attack two years later.
With the director's version unavailable for years a rumor quickly spread that the original was 140 minutes long (it was actually 113 minutes in France and 116 minutes in Germany), and 30 minutes had been lost forever. Fortunately, producer Pierre Braunberger bought the rights to the film in 1968 and issued a restored version that quickly became popular at film festivals. When it played the New York Film Festival that year (it had already been screened at the first New York Film Festival in 1963 with a group of films that had failed on their initial U.S. releases), many critics joined Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice in hailing it as the greatest movie ever made. Twenty years later Serge Toubiana of the Cinematheque Francaise approached Braunberger's daughter, Laurence, about creating a fully restored version to highlight the continuing need for film preservation. Working with prints from three different archives, they restored the film's color values and soundtrack and used animation to replace lost footage of the curtains that open at the film's beginning and close at the end. The new digitized version was also transferred to celluloid for theatres not equipped for digital technology. The restoration premiered at the 2008 New York Film Festival, making Lola Montes the only film ever screened by the Festival in three different years.
Producer: Albert Caraco
Director: Max Ophuls
Screenplay: Ophuls, Jacques Natanson, Annette Wademant
Based on the novel La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montes by Cecil Saint-Laurent
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne, Willy Schatz
Music: Georges Auric
Cast: Martine Carol (Lola Montes), Peter Ustinov (Circus Master), Anton Walbrook (Ludwig I, King of Bavaria), Ivan Desny (Lt. James), Will Quadflieg (Franz Liszt), Oskar Werner (Student), Marcel Ophuls (Bit).
by Frank Miller