France-West Germany, 1955
Director: Max Ophüls
Production: Gamma-Films, Florida-Films (Paris), and Oska Films (Munich); Eastmancolor, 35mm, CinemaScope; running time: original version 110 minutes, later cut to 90 minutes; length: originally 9900 feet, later cut to 8100 feet. Released 23 December 1955. Released 23 December 1955. Re-released 1968 with 30 minutes missing. Filmed 28 February-29 July 1955 in Studio Joinville, Paris, Studio Geiselgasteig, Munich, Studio Victorine, Nice, and on location in Bavaria, Côte d'Azur, and around Paris. Cost: 650 million francs.
Producer: Albert Caraco, some sources list Ralph Baum; screenplay: Jacques Natanson, Annette Wademant, Max Ophüls, and (for the German version) Franz Geiger, from the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cecil St. Laurent; photography: Christian Matras; editor: Madeleine Gug; sound: Antoine Petitjean with J. Neny and H. Endrulat; production designers: Jean d'Eaubonne, Jacques Guth, and (for the German version) William Schatz; music: Georges Auric; costume designers: Georges Annenkov, Monique Plotin, and Marcel Escoffier; choreography: Helge Pawlinin.
Cast: Martine Carol (Maria Dolorès Porriz y Montèz, alias Lola Montèz); Peter Ustinov (Ringmaster); Anton Walbrook (King Louis 1st of Bavaria); Ivan Densy (Lt. James, 1st husband of Lola Montèz); Lise Delamare (Mrs. Craigie); Henri Guisol (Maurice, Lola's driver); Paulette Dubost (Josephine, servant to Lola); Will Quadflieg (Franz Liszt); Oscar Werner (The student); Jacques Fayet (Steward); Daniel Mendaille (Captain); Jean Gallard (Secretary to the Baron); Claude Pinoteau (Orchestra leader); Béatrice Arnac (Circus rider); Willy Eichberger (Carl Esmond); Werner Finck (Painter); Germaine Delbat (Stewardess); Helena Manson (James's sister); Walter Kiaulehn (Attendant in the theater); Willy Rösner (1st Minister); Friedrich Domin (Director of the circus); Hélène Iawkoff; Gustav Waldou (Rhino trainer); Betty Philipsen.
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* * *
From the time of its premier in Paris in December of 1955 Lola Montès has created controversy with the critics and the public alike. During its initial release audiences booed the film. Some grew so rowdy that the exhibitors were forced to call in the police. An open letter appeared in Le Figaro pleading for restraint on the part of those patrons who remained perplexed by the film. It argued that a film as technically new and audacious as Lola was just the breath of fresh air the cinema needed, and that to condemn the film was to do a disservice not merely to this film but to the cinema in general. The letter was signed by Jean Cocteau, Roberto Rossellini, Jacques Tati, and Jacques Becker, among others. While less impassioned, the critical response was no less polarized. On one side the film was dismissed as boring and incoherent because of its sumptuous excess of decor, mise-en-scène and narrative convolution. On the other, by reason of this same excess, it was hailed as a masterpiece of the baroque.
Much of this controversy can be attributed to the way in which the film was touted. Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of such lush costume spectacles as Lucrece Borgia and Madame Du Barry, Gamma Films advertised a super-production based on the life and loves of the most scandalous woman of all time, Lola Montès—the Spanish-Irish cabaret dancer who became the mistress of Franz Liszt and Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. The film would feature Martine Carol, France's foremost sex goddess, then at the pinnacle of her career, and would be adapted from a novel by Cecil St. Laurent, author of a series of tastefully erotic novels, including Caroline and Cherie. It would boast an all-star supporting cast headed by Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, and the latest heart-throb from Germany, Oskar Werner. Finally, the film was to be directed by Europe's most urbane master of the "woman's film," Max Ophüls, in lavish Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. All of these ingredients promised a blockbuster, a film which would provide a titillating view of tragic love among the aristocratic classes while never overstepping the boundaries of good taste and middle-class morality.
However, this was not the film that Ophüls delivered. Instead, he chose to take aim at the very mechanism that Gamma Films was using to market the film: lurid publicity. In an interview with François Truffaut, Ophüls cites the fate of Judy Garland and Diana Barrymore, which he blamed on the public's appetite for scandal and on the entrepreneurs who shamelessly exploit scandals. "We must kill publicity . . . I find it dreadful, this vice of wanting to know everything, this irreverence in the face of mystery. It is on this theme that I have built my film: the annihilation of the personality through the cruelty and indecency of spectacles based on scandal." Cinema made a voyeur of everyone—producer, performer, and spectator alike. For Ophüls the true subject of Lola Montès became the demystification of the publicity and exhibitionism that characterizes our era. To achieve this, he turns his customary style on its head. He sets the glittering display of his previous films against itself, and transforms his formerly refined depiction of a decadent world into a virulent condemnation of itself.
All aspects of the film's technique attempt to subvert the spectator's voyeuristic gaze and turn it back on itself. The framing device of the mammoth circus serves to distance the spectator from the events of Lola's life presented in flashback. Lola, confined in a cage, is introduced by the suitably oily ringmaster as a beast more dangerous than any other found in the circus's menagerie. Lola's entrance has been preceded by a parade of clowns representing a caricature of a parade of Lola's lovers. She is displayed on a pedestal revolving in one direction, while the camera orbits about her in a 360-degree track moving in the opposite direction. A short mime show prefaces each flashback, undermining the suspense of the episodes. Even the woodenness of Martine Carol's performance, which many critics felt marred the film, is turned to advantage. Lola is treated as an object, a beautiful but hollow doll, an empty manikin, to be invested with the fantasies of the men who possess her. Like the earrings in Ophüls's earlier Madame De . . . , the character of Lola functions as a focal point around which the desires of the other characters (especially those of the circus spectators) are gathered and then reflected back with striking clarity.
Ophüls mustered all his expertise in mounting this, his final film. Though it marked his first use of color and CinemaScope, what he is able to accomplish is often stunning. Each flashback is set off by a dominant hue to suggest Lola's psychological state. These range from the blue of the episode of Lola as a young girl to the autumnal yellow and ochre of her sojourn at the court of Ludwig. In his encounter with the wide-screen format, Ophüls discovered solutions to compositional problems which had perplexed users of the unwieldy aspect ratio since its inception, and which look forward to effects that Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk would realize in the late 1950s. Of course in his use of the moving camera Ophüls remains without peer. The circular tracking shot which opens the film, the camera's plunge which duplicates Lola's at the climax of her performance, and the final track back revealing the line of men queuing up to pay for a brush with immortality at Lola's hand, still prove capable of taking the breath away.
When Lola Montès failed so miserably with Parisian audiences, the producers decided to recall all prints and despite Ophüls's protests, recut the film. Their version reduced the film from 140 to 90 minutes by abandoning the flashback structure in favor of a strict chronological rendering of the story. A happy epilogue spoken by Martine Carol was also added. This mutilated version opened in Monte Carlo in February, 1957, and succeeded only in calling forth the unanimous disapprobation of both critics and the public. It was withdrawn from further distribution. By a bitter coincidence, Ophüls died in March, 1957, without completing another film. Lola Montès remained unseen in any version for nearly a decade. In 1966 a group of scholars purchased the prints that remained available and patched together a version which, as far as possible, corresponds to the cut Ophüls had authorized, though it still lacks 30 minutes of the original. This version premiered in 1968, and has since become a staple of film societies and re-run houses around the world. It has been justly hailed as Ophüls's masterpiece and, as Claude Beylie has written, after Rules of the Game and Citizen Kane, it is "the third and decisive stage in the development of modern cinema."