Lola Montés (1955) Written and directed by Max Ophuls. Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Oskar Werner. (110 min) French with English subtitles. Rated PG
The Most Scandalous Woman in the World, mistress of kings and commoners (French sexpot Carol) reflects on her life from the vortex of a circus ring. The rejection of his scandalous, opulent, vibrantly colorful CinemaScope masterpiece, “the greatest film of all time” according to the Village Voice‘s Andrew Sarris, hastened the director’s death.
Max Ophuls was born in Germany in 1902, and changed his name from Oppenheimer to spare his well-to-do Jewish textile manufacturing family (who also owned a department store) the shame of his becoming an actor. His home town was near the French border, so he grew up speaking both languages. His acting success was mediocre, but he became a well-known director of plays, and then began directing films at the studios of U.F.A. in 1930. Soon after a film version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Liebelei became a success in Germany, the burning of the Reichstag forced Ophuls into exile in France. He made a number of films there but emigrated again as the Nazis threatened, eventually arriving in Hollywood with his wife and son, Marcel, who would grow up to be the acclaimed director of the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.
Ophuls was unemployed between 1941 and 1945, but remained socially connected within the large émigré colony in Hollywood. He always felt he was near to making a film, so he felt the time passed quickly. He then made 4 major films in quick succession; flops at the time, but now highly regarded, including Letter from an Unknown Woman, starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. In 1949, he returned to France, where he had his greatest successes, La Ronde, Le Plasir, The Earrings of Mme. De... and Lola Montés. This final film was a huge commercial failure and Ophuls died shortly afterwards at the age of 55.
Hindsight reveals the film was doomed from the beginning. Ophuls helmed the biggest budget ever for a French film, based on a screenplay by racy author Cecil St. Laurent, starring pre-Bardot French sexpot Martine Carol. The resulting film film was opulent, but dense with metaphor and lacking in the expected spice, “with Martine Carol baring nothing more than her shoulders” (Thomas 108). “The audience is expecting a cream cake but instead it gets a punch in the stomach!” Ophuls would later observe (Rialto).
There was a real Lola Montés, and except for the circus, most of what you see of her remarkable life is true. She was born Elizabeth Gilbert, in Ireland. Her father was in the army, married Lola’s 14 year old mother, already pregnant, and shortly after was dispatched to Calcutta, India. Little Elizabeth’s father soon died of cholera and her mother quickly remarried, and the child was sent back to Scotland to live with relatives. She eloped at 18, and after separating from her husband, made her way back to England, stopping off in Spain, where she reveled in the local dances and changed her name to Lola Montés. She became a dancer herself, although really more of a celebrity than an artist. She became notorious as a femme fatale; the mistress of celebrity musician and composer Franz Lizst and later of the 60 year old King Ludwig of Bavaria. In the 1850s she toured the US and Australia with her sensational “Spider Dance” in which she pretended to shake the creature out of her clothes. She died, impoverished, in the US in 1861. Lola Montés is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, her neglected grave marked “Mrs. Eliza Gilbert, D. Age 42.” “Lola’s dancing was apparently always dreadful, and certainly controversial. Ophuls’ film reflects the artistic ambiguities of her career: was Lola Montés an accomplished performer or simply a buxom and scandalous beauty, whose large blue eyes had a particular penetrating quality?” (White 280). These questions lingered too, regarding the star of the film, Martine Carol. But, from the vantage point of an audience who has never seen any of her other films, her performance as Lola is lovely and affecting.
Ophuls claimed not to be interested in the subject, insisting, “Lola Montés? That woman doesn’t interest me. It is the people who surround her that excite me. Her role is roughly the same as that of our pair of earrings in Madame De…” and he took the original script by St. Laurent to his own collaborators for refinement. (Rialto). The producers managed to raise the equivalent of a $2 million budget: this would be the most expensive film to date in post-WW II Europe. Ophuls was offered the film specifically because he had been a Hollywood director, and the producers wanted an international hit, not an art film (Bacher 331). They insisted not just on Martine Carol and her box office clout, but on using the wide screen CinemaScope process, when Ophuls preferred the intimacy of the square screen. They also wanted three versions, in French, German and English, fortunately, all languages in which Ophuls was fluent. Scheduling glitches were rampant, checks bounced, 500 costumed extras were rained out of an extravagant parade scene and had to return at great expense the next day. Altogether the filming took five months, with 100 days of shooting, and was assembled in three different editing rooms, one room and editor for each language. At the end, the critics savaged the film, and it was extensively recut from 110 minutes (never 140, as was once thought) the flashback structure was scrapped and at 90 minutes the film was retitled “The Sins of Lola Montés.” The producers and editors were still arguing about how to salvage their investment when Ophuls died. When the film finally opened in New York, it was a scant 75 minutes, and began with the final shot of Ophuls’original cut.
Although a financial disaster, the film did have its defenders, among them cinema’s most respected voices. Jean Cocteau, Roberto Rossellini, Jacques Tati, as well as Francois Truffaut and the rest of the impassioned writers for Cahiers du Cinema all admired it. Advertisements in the newspaper sung its praises, “while more casual support was expressed by fisticuffs in the aisle” (White 277). Truffaut could not have been more effusive in his praise, “Lola Montés is a film that breaks all the records: the best French film of the year, the best CinemaScope to date; Max Ophuls is declared the best French technician of the day as well as the best director; for the first time, Martine Carol, as Lola, is really satisfactory, Peter Ustinov is sensational, and so is Oskar Werner, Anton Walbrook and Ivan Desny are excellent” (228 Truffaut).
Martine Carol was a 1940s pinup girl, whose sensational private life included a torrid affair with a married actor and a suicide attempt in the Seine River. Her personal scandals were a great career move. Starring in a several historical bodice-rippers in the 1950s made her France’s top sex kitten. She was not the most expressive of actresses and filming in three languages was difficult for her. The French version is the restored version, because Carol could barely speak German and spoke no English, which impeded her limited acting skills even further. The producers thought that she would sell tickets for any film, and found out, to their sorrow, this was not true. Her appearance in the film is made poignant by her premature death, in 1967, of a heart attack, at the age of 46, only four years older than Lola Montés.
Peter Ustinov was an actor, director, playwright, novelist and screenwriter. A versatile character actor, he was “an accomplished actor, a literate author, a cultivated wit and a delightful conversationalist and raconteur of TV talk shows” (Katz 1407). He won Oscars for his supporting roles in Spartacus and Topkapi, and later in life became a UN Ambassador for UNICEF. An odd fact is that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was walking across her garden for a tv interview with Ustinov when she was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.
Due to schedule overruns, Ustinov was not required on Lola Montés’ set until two days before his contract was scheduled to expire. Ustinov wrote in his autobiography, “Max was the first great poet of bad taste, in that he was the first to exploit Art Nouveau as a thing of beauty and style, not merely as a curiosity, the visible cancer of a decadent and dying society as my generation was brought up to believe it to be…In his endless search for subtlety, he would ask you to register hatred or brutality without changing the expression of your face and then plunge you into shafts of darkness, or shoot you through a metal banister or a net curtain to obliterate every effect except your presence” (Ustinov 278).
Ustinov and Ophuls (center)
“During another immensely complicated take—lasting four and half minutes and involving horses, tumblers and trapeze artists, and with the camera moving on an endless complicated track, spiraling and dipping—I, as the ringmaster, sent a dwarf off for a glass of water, which was not part of the meticulous planning. Surprised, the dwarf ran off to fetch it. Since he didn’t know where to find it, it took rather a long time, and my irritation increased, as did the hoarseness of my throat. At last, he brought it, I drank it surreptitiously while shouting out my lines, like a headwaiter having a secret nip, and gave the empty glass to the dwarf, drying my mouth with a large silk handkerchief which was part of my costume. It was as relaxed as the rest was formal. At the end of the take, Max Ophuls expressed both the quality of his despotism and of his magnanimity. Taking me aside, for once rather sad, he said, ‘Peter, the one thing I regret is that I didn’t tell you to do that’” (Ustinov 280). This anecdote reveals both Ustinov’s mastery of the passive aggressive, as well as his knack for upstaging even a monumental tracking shot. Perhaps his memory of the incident was a little vague; a similar incident in the film does appear to have been scripted.
Anton Walbrook, who plays King Ludwig I, was a favorite actor of Ophuls’ and appears also in La Ronde. He was born in Vienna to a family who had been clowns for 300 years, but instead of joining the circus, became a stage actor for the legendary Max Reinhardt. He starred in both silent and sound films in Germany, but as both Jewish and gay, he decided not to return to Germany after a brief Hollywood stint in the 1930s. His most famous role is as the ballet impresario in The Red Shoes. He died of a heart attack in 1967.
Oskar Werner was also Viennese, and dropped out of school to pursue his love of the theater. Drafted into the German army, he pretended to be so stupid that he was only fit for KP duty. After years of flirting with film stardom, he finally achieved international fame in Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and then had a brief Hollywood career, He was Oscar nominated for Ship of Fools, and appeared in Farhenheit 451 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
In spite of some rapturous reviews, the film failed to arouse the interest of the audience. The central metaphor of the film, a grandiose circus of which Peter Ustinov is ringmaster, was confusing to those who did not know Lola Montés as a notorious courtesan and dancer, but believed her to be a circus star. Ustinov, playing a crucial role in the narrative did not believe it to be one of the director’s masterworks: “I had to write Ophuls’ obituary for the Manchester Guardian, and I described him as a man with an ingrained perversity, the kind who would make the smallest wrist-watch in the world and then hang it from a church spire as a timepiece. I liked him, but I didn’t feel comfortable, I felt like a cog in his machine. His methods were far from mine. I agreed with him on nothing, but he had a marvelous humour and we got along delightfully” (Thomas 107).
In an interview with Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, Ophuls said, “I can assure you that when I was watching the ruses and the projection people said to me, “That blue! That red! It’s too daring!’ I didn’t understand. Everything good in Lola happened because of my inexperience with color and CinemaScope–when I looked through the camera’s viewfinder, it was as if I’d just been born.” (Willimen 24).
We are lucky to be able to see this fantastic restoration by Rialto Pictures, thanks to a collaboration including the daughter of a legendary New Wave French film producer, the Cinematheque Francaise and the director’s son, Marcel Ophuls. The color, the CinemaScope and the original stereophonic sound mix have—finally–all been presented as the director intended.
This film has no greater champion than Andrew Sarris, who once wrote: “Lola Montès is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time, and I am willing to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on this one proposition above all others.” A recent interview with him, available on the Rialto website is both an affirmation of his opinion and a reflection on our current society–even more obsessed with celebrity than Victorian age. Sarris’ wife of 38 years, film writer Molly Haskell adds, “I think if I hadn’t liked Lola Montès, our relationship might have been over.”
François Truffaut, too, was alive to Ophuls’ contemporary commentary on celebrity, observing that in the film, “Peter Ustinov, the ringmaster-biographer, manages his show with the same bad taste, vulgarity and unconscious cruelty that governs television broadcasts”–this in 1955! (Truffaut 226). And this was completely Ophuls’ intention; Truffaut wrote after the director’s death in 1957, “He confided to me that he had systematically put into the plot of Lola Montés everything that had troubled or disturbed him in the newspapers for the preceding three months: Hollywood divorces, Judy Garland’s suicide attempt, Rita Hayworth’s adventure, American three-ring circuses, the advent of CinemaScope and Cinerama, they overemphasis on publicity, the exaggerations of modern life” (Truffaut 234). Lola Montés, a 19th century courtesan, as modern as this week’s reality tv.
(Photo of Ustinov and Ophuls from Ustinov in Focus by Tony Thomas, other photos and extensive film notes on www.rialtopictures.com. Photo of Carol and Werner from the 1975 Audio Brandon 16mm International Cinema catalogue, from which I booked Lola Montés for my college film society. Sources include: Dear Me by Peter Ustinov, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios by Lutz Bacher, The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman by Susan M. White, Ophuls, edited by Paul Willemen, The Films in My Life by François Truffaut).