Lola Montès (1955) is an epic historical romance film and the last completed film of German-born director Max Ophüls. It is based on the life of the celebrated Irish dancer and courtesan Lola Montez (1821–1861), portrayed by Martine Carol, and tells the story of the most famous of her many notorious affairs, those with Franz Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria.
A French production, the dialogue is mostly in French and German, with a few English language sequences. The most expensive European film produced up to its time, Lola Montès flopped at the box office.
It had an important artistic influence, however, on the French New Wave cinema movement and continues to have many distinguished critical admirers. Heavily re-edited (multiple times) and shortened after its initial release for commercial reasons, it has been twice restored (1968, 2008). It was released on DVD and Blu-ray in North America by The Criterion Collection in February 2010.
In the mid-19th-century, Lola Montès (Martine Carol) is a famous, past-her-prime dancer and courtesan who has led an eventful and highly scandalous life. (She supposedly holds a world record for number of lovers.)
She is now reduced to performing in a New Orleans circus, where an impresario/ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) has both befriended and exploited her by making her the central attraction. In the course of a single circus performance — which dramatically reenacts Lola’s life and career — flashbacks reveal, first, her affair with composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg); second, her unhappy youth and marriage to her own mother’s boyfriend, Lt. Thomas James (Ivan Desny); and then her scandalous public breakup with conductor Claudio Pirotto (Claude Pinoteau).
Along the way, her career as a dancer and “actress” has its ups and downs and she initially rejects the career advances of a younger version of Ustinov’s impresario. In a longer flashback, constituting most of the second half of the film, her career as courtesan reaches a peak: her affair with the Bavarian King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), which incenses his subjects and leads to his eventual downfall in the March Revolution of 1848. In a final circus sequence, Lola — a “fallen woman” — ascends to the apex of the big top tent for a symbolic, death-defying plunge. She is last seen allowing herself to be touched, or kissed, by a very long queue of male, fee-paying circus patrons.
- Martine Carol as Lola Montès
- Peter Ustinov as Circus Master
- Will Quadflieg as Franz Liszt
- Anton Walbrook as Ludwig I, King of Bavaria
- Oskar Werner as Student
- Henri Guisol as Horseman Maurice
- Lise Delamare as Mrs. Craigie, Lola’s mother
- Paulette Dubost as Josephine, Lola’s maid
This would be the last film directed by Ophüls before his death of a heart attack in March 1957. As originally shown in France in 1955, the audience sees the events of Lola Montès’ life through the use of flashbacks. Use of the technique was criticized upon its release and the movie did poorly at the box office. In response, the producers re-cut the film and shortened it in favor of a more chronological storyline, against the director’s wishes.
According to Roger Ebert, a “savagely butchered version was in circulation for a few years” following Ophuls’ death. The film critic Andrew Sarris and others eventually showed improved versions, progressively closer to the original, at the New York Film Festival in 1963 and 1968.
Certain elements remained missing and believed lost, but the recent discovery and restoration efforts by Technicolor artists of the lost footage allowed a new version to be edited according to Ophul’s original intentions. The color version of the film with missing footage was digitally restored by a small team of restoration artists including John Healy at Technicolor under the direction of Tom Burton.
The black and white version of the film was repaired by Martina Müller and Werner Dütsch. The color version including lost footage was shown at the New York Film Festival according to the director’s edit version on Sept. 26 – Oct. 12, 2008.
Roger Ebert lauded the film’s camerawork and set design, but felt that Carol’s “wooden [and] shallow” performance as the titular character prevented the film from achieving greatness. Nonetheless, it is today among Ophüls’ revered works. Dave Kehr called it a masterpiece, and wrote that “certainly this story of a courtesan’s life is among the most emotionally plangent, visually ravishing works the cinema has to offer.”
The film also received five votes in the British Film Institute‘s 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll. Lola Montès is acclaimed in Danny Peary‘s 1981 book, Cult Movies as one of the 100 most representative examples of the cult film phenomenon.
- Ebert, Roger (November 5, 2008). “Lola Montes movie review”. Chicago Sun-Times.
- Martina Müller, Werner Dütsch: Lola Montez – Eine Filmgeschichte
- “New York Film Festival review of the restored version”. Film Society of Lincoln Center. Retrieved 10 July 2009.
- “Max Ophüls’s Acclaimed Films”. February 7, 2016. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
- Kehr, Dave. “Lola Montes”. Chicago Reader. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
- “Votes for LOLA MONTÈS (1955)”. British Film Institute. Retrieved July 24, 2016.
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