In the fall of 2013, I set about to watch a few of the major films by a master filmmaker who had previously been unfamiliar to me: Max Ophuls. Famous for his elegant camera movement, Ophuls made movies both in Europe and the United States; I watched four of the former and one of the latter. There wasn’t a bad film in the bunch, but I found myself uncommitted, giving three-and-a-half stars to all but one of them (La Ronde). The last film he completed before his death at age 54, Lola Montès, was also the only film he made in color and in CinemaScope. An expensive spectacle, the movie failed commercially and was recut to straighten out its fractured chronology. Since then, the film as Ophuls envisioned it has been mostly restored, getting a Criterion Collection release in 2010. It was that DVD that I rented from Netflix a year and a half ago and again this week.
Lola Montès tells the story of the real-life nineteenth-century courtesan and dancer of the same name. A scandalous figure, she had relationships with dozens of men until finally joining the circus to have her exploits recounted night after night for a paying audience. Through tableaux vivants and acrobatic acts, the show sets up the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the story. Lola defies conventions throughout her life, eloping to avoid an arranged marriage with an old man, trying her luck at ballet when her looks guarantee her a “career” as a wife, and finally charging her way into the life of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Objectified and despised, she performs a roundelay of affairs, grand gestures, and noisy breakups throughout Europe until her health starts to fail. But when a young idealist falls for her, she has the selflessness to push him away before he gets in too deep.
Even though he had never worked in the widescreen format or with color before, Ophuls makes excellent use of both. The color saturation of the circus scenes, painting Lola as exotic and dangerous (a “femme fatale”), would probably have had the same effect on me, had I seen Lola Montès in a theater at the age of five, as Aladdin did. Ophuls uses the silent-era technique of blacking out parts of the screen to make multiple aspect ratios, isolating characters in their own private space. The precise tableaux predict the work of Wes Anderson and the stagecraft of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, while the sense of humor recalls Ernst Lubitsch. One scene, in which Ludwig’s servants engage in a relay race to procure some needle and thread, is particularly Lubitschian in its winking innuendo. Formally, the film is exquisite in every way. The camera follows characters as they move back and forth around gorgeous sets.
I held this film at arm’s length in 2013, and I still do today. What’s holding me back? This revisit was randomly selected, and it’s always possible that in another decade or so I’ll be able to see things in the film that I’ve missed and feel the experience more deeply. But at this point, while I appreciate the film’s beauty, the story never grabs me, despite the fact that, on paper, it’s completely fascinating. Lola, as played by Martine Carol, isn’t an especially compelling figure — pitiable, of course, but little else. Her fling with Franz Liszt in the first flashback sequence falls remarkably flat. Maybe a more conventional structure would have made it easier for me to sympathize with Lola. As it is, I’m just another ex-lover, leaving her behind when the going gets tough.
Consistently inventive and adventurous while retaining a continental refinement, Lola Montès feels like just the movie Ophuls wanted to make. I was expecting to remain on the fence about it, whereas another of Ophuls’s movies, The Earrings of Madame de…, felt like the kind of movie that could break through my defenses on a second viewing. Time will tell on that one. As for Lola Montès, I think it’s a perfectly good movie, fully deserving of 3 ½ stars, whatever on earth that means. But I look at Ophuls’s contemporaries, and I think: Fellini does circus stuff better, Powell and Pressburger do color and ballet better, and Welles does chopped-up timelines better. Could any of them combine the three like this? I’m not sure, but I’m also not entirely sold on that combination.