Classic Review: Lola Montes

Lola Montes (1955)

* * * * *

Dir. Max Ophuls, 1955

Yesterday, the Museum of Art in Oklahoma City showed a 35 mm print of Max Ophuls’ final (completed) film, Lola Montes. I’m not the biggest fan of melodrama, or historical epics, but figured from reputation that this was a film I needed to see on a large screen and in 35mm.

Shot in Cinemascope, the film is about Irish courtesan/dancer Lola Montez (here Francophonically [eh, that’s gotta be a word] rendered as Montes) and her many affairs with famous men. But the film isn’t entirely about that. Rather, Montes’ life has become a circus attraction and her life is played out in vignettes both in the circus ring and in her memory. The film becomes less about her affairs, and while somewhat a tragedy of society, a film about spectacle and attraction on multiple levels.

And this is grand cinematic spectacle. I have a soft spot for circus films. I only went to one circus growing up, and found it really depressing, but on film, from Freaks to The Elephant Man, the circus seems exceptionally cinematic. It portrays presentation, looking, magic, and theatricality in a way that is often lacking in film, often while challenging the pretense of cinematic illusion. The circus scenes in this film are some of the best I’ve seen in film. Ophuls’ direction is symphonic, and the sheer excess of these images, the various performers climbing, moving, and dancing, is magnificent to watch. The unsung here here is cinematographer Christian Matras who should be considered one of the all-time greats but tends to get overlooked because his directors often get the credit for the visuals; aside from Ophuls’ major works he also filmed Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bunuel’s The Milky Way. 

This is an historical melodrama; it is about Lola and her impressive social abilities. But at the same time, the non-chronological order of the film, and the often conflicting accounts from the circus and Lola’s memories, question the basic functions of a traditional historic melodrama. Particularly, the distance between Lola and the masses; the nearly invisible masses who use her as a catalyst for revolution (“It’s a riot if they stop. It’s a revolution if they continue”) versus the crowd at the circus who interrogate her.  Most historical melodramas privilege the ruling elite and align their audiences’ sympathies with those characters while ignoring the realities of society and history.  In this film, the circus scenes tend to, in a pre (not quite proto)-new wave but post-Brechtian style, interrogate the far more traditionally melodramatic memories and place them in a different sphere, one controlled by the people. The film’s attitude seems to be embodied by Peter Ustinov’s ring leader who often, in asides or under his breath, undercuts the spectacle with the practicalities of performance (there’s also a parallel scene to that idea of the backstage work that seems to prefigure what Bergman would take to another level in his version of the Magic Flute).

This film was highly influential on directors from Robert Altman to PT and Wes Anderson. But that doesn’t mean it feels familiar. This is a throughly unusual and at times downright bizarre film. Which is why I loved it.

This film is particularly ripe for feminist readings, and I’m pretty sure there have already been many articles written from that angle and I won’t really go into them.

There’s also a bit of history you can read on your own about the film’s release and its poor initial reception. It was famously re-edited into chronological order and I actually want to track down one of those versions because it seems like it would make a weird film even stranger. It was restored in 2008.

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