Two years after completing his final film, 1955’s Lola Montès, Max Ophüls died not knowing whether it would ever be seen in the form he intended. Based on the true story of a notorious 19th-century sex symbol, Lola Montès takes place mainly in a circus, where Lola (played by Martine Carol) is the featured attraction, and where The Ringmaster (played by Peter Ustinov) tells her life story to the paying throng, while high-wire tricks and clown acts whirl in the background and serve as illustration. As The Ringmaster talks, Lola disappears into her own memories of traveling the world and being passed from lover to lover: composer Franz Liszt, Bavarian king Ludwig I, an idealistic young revolutionary, and more. Lola’s memories are presented non-chronologically, which the initial Lola Montès audiences found confusing. So the producers had the movie re-cut, re-framed, and streamlined, obscuring Ophüls’ artistry.
The process of restoring Lola Montès began almost as soon as Ophüls died, but while the structure of the film was set right in the ’60s, it wasn’t until 2008 that the cut footage was properly reinserted, and the movie returned to Ophüls’ Cinemascope aspect ratio. Even butchered, Lola Montès found champions over the years—including film critic Andrew Sarris, who famously called it “the greatest movie ever made” at a time when the critical community generally considered the film a misfire—but in its restored form, Lola Montès comes across more clearly as Ophüls’ signature masterpiece. It’s in a league with Citizen Kane, The Red Shoes, and other movies that operate on a higher plane of sophistication and creativity than their contemporaries. The film’s visual splendor was always apparent—from the surreal sight of colorfully masked circus performers to the complicated choreography of the trapeze routine that represents Lola’s serial romances—but now the nuances of Ophüls’ mise-en-scène are clearer, revealing how the compositions and the story work to continually cage the heroine.
The recurring complaint about Lola Montès over the years has been that the acting is stiff and the emotions abstract, but that’s hardly a dealbreaker, given what Ophüls is up to. The film is partly about how the public tries to own famous people, and to fit them into narratives that make them more symbols than human. In Lola Montès, the camera often seems to be peeking in at Lola’s life, from behind houseplants or around doorways, and the nested plot invites viewers to compare Lola’s memories with the circus version, while never letting us forget that the movie itself is largely fiction. For more than 50 years, Lola Montès has been enchanting viewers who enjoy peeling back the layers of Ophüls’ style, and frustrating those who prefer their historical dramas to be more “real.” But by showing a painting of Lola in furs, side-by-side with the real Lola, posing side-by-side with the lover who commissioned the painting to commemorate a favorite memory, Ophüls gets at a deeper truth about how we process the past. And, incidentally, proves that realism is overrated.
Key features: An informative commentary track by Ophüls scholar Susan White, an Ophüls-themed episode of a mid-’60s French docu-series, and a new 30-minute documentary about the making of Lola Montès, directed by Ophüls’ son Marcel (who calls the belated restoration and appreciation of the film “a wonderful victory over time and imbeciles”).