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With: Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Henri Guisol, Lise Delamare, Paulette Dubost, Oskar Werner, Jean Galland, Will Quadflieg, Helena Manson, Germaine Delbat, Carl Esmond, Jacques Fayet, Friedrich Domin, Werner Finck, Ivan Desny
Written by: Max Ophuls, Annette Wademant, Jacques Natanson, based on a novel by Cˇcil Saint-Laurent
Directed by: Max Ophuls
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 19/11/2008
IMDB

Lola Montès (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Ornate Frame

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Note: Lola Montes is touring revival theaters in 2008 in a gorgeous new print from Rialto Pictures. It opens in San Francisco's Castro Theater on November 19. I wrote the following review in 1999, based on a video version I'd seen. I'll let this review stand, and add some new notes afterward. I'm also raising my score from 2-1/2 stars to 4 stars.

*****

As far as I know, Lola Montes has not played in a San Francisco theater in the last five or ten years, so the version I'm reviewing is the letterboxed, subtitled, video version. For those who know the movie, this is most likely a sacrilege. Lola Montes is packed frame for frame with lovely things, and to see it on home video is like trying to make out the little bumps on a basketball during a playoff game on TV. I imagine the effect would be nicer if one had a clear copy (which I didn't) and a large television (which I don't).

Lola Montes was director Max Ophuls' last movie. It begins in a huge circus with Peter Ustinov as the ringmaster. He brings out Lola Montes (Martine Carol) and allows unseen patrons to ask her questions. We see flashbacks of her life and her many scandalous lovers, up to and including the King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook, from The Red Shoes). Lola has had lovers all over the globe, many rich and famous, and has left them all wanting more. Lola's life story is framed by the circus performance, where she reenacts her life every night, and climaxes with a jump from a high cage to the ring below with no net.

Ophuls was a German-born Jew, who began in theater and gravitated to movies. He made his first movies in German, then moved on to France (he was born very close to the French border). For a brief time, he was in Hollywood making romantic melodramas: The Exile (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), and Caught (1949). He went back to France and made his most celebrated movies: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), and The Earrings of Madame de... (1953). These movies were marked by lush black-and-white photography, delicate, sublime camera movements, and stories that came full-circle, which did not travel in a straight line. Ophuls preferred stories that ended right where they started.

In 1955, Ophuls, like many older directors, was coerced, tempted, prodded, into trying out the new Cinemascope format. Many directors hated the new format, some had odd success with it, but none had the idea that Ophuls had. He would simply mask out part of the screen and shoot just like he used to. In other words, scenes are shot in and around dazzling sets and props, so that the actors are only visible in one half or one section of the frame. Sometimes he even uses D.W. Griffith's old technique of physically "masking" the frame with black bands. In this manner, Ophuls was able to continue as he always did, but giving the illusion that he was making a widescreen movie.

I applaud Ophuls for his ingeniousness, but I haven't really decided if this technique works or not. It feels a bit like a cheat. But I also suspect that Lola Montes is a movie that needs to be seen over and over again to truly reap all its treasures.

There are other drawbacks, unfortunately. The clunky Cinemascope camera does not allow Ophuls to move as often or as delicately as he was used to. He is also unable to frame his lead actress Martine Carol in very many close-ups. I don't know if it's because of this lack of close-ups or if it's a lack of star magnitude in Carol, but I was mostly unaffected by Lola throughout the movie. She needed to have a sexual, or at least a movie star, hold over us, and she doesn't.

At the moment, I have seen only two other Ophuls movies so far: Letter from an Unknown Woman and La Ronde. I'm very fond of both of them. My reaction to Lola Montes at this point is very mixed. Ophuls is a director I want very much to see more of, though. Perhaps I'll revisit this movie one day and give it another try.

*****

Notes on the 2008 Re-Release: Several things happened to enhance my opinion of Lola Montes. Firstly, it does need to be seen on the big screen, or at least on a high-quality Criterion DVD. The video and DVD releases thus far have been proven sub-par by any standards. Seen more clearly, the film does have many graceful movements in it, and I have come to accept and appreciate Ophuls' innovative use of the huge frame.

Secondly, I've now seen nine Ophuls films, as opposed to the two I had seen when I wrote this review, and it's clearer just how Lola Montes fits. I think, like Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, he was trying to make a masterpiece with this film. His instincts told him to go bigger than he had before, rising "above" his "mere" romantic pictures. (Ironically, The Earrings of Madame de..., his previous picture, is now seen as his masterpiece, and one of the greatest films of all time.)

Thirdly, I was far more affected by star Martine Carol this time, perhaps because I could see her more clearly, or perhaps because I'm older now, while she has remained the same. There's no question that a better actress would have improved the role -- Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich have both been mentioned -- and it's true that Carol can't pull off the various age differences that the role calls for, but this time I found an undeniable sensuality in her character; she was as irresistible to me as she was to the men in the film. I also saw more things in Peter Ustinov's performance; occasionally during the circus show, he pauses to whisper small questions and concerns to her so that the audience can't hear, and I found these among the most moving moments in the entire film.

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