If only we were in the circus audience of Lola Montes, rather than the audience for the film.
That’s not to disparage the movie, for in the end this is another sumptuous Max Ophuls feast of cinematic flourishes. But it is to say that there is a significant drop in vitality when we go from the scenes of notorious courtesan Lola (Martine Carol) as the main act of a bizarre circus to the traditionally framed flashbacks of her earlier life, which detail the scandals and affairs that led to her sensational reputation. As can happen, especially at the movies, the telling of the tale is more thrilling than the actual events.
Ophuls didn’t know this was his last film – he would die a few years after its release – but it has the feel of a director who wanted to leave everything he had left on the screen. His first film in color, the circus scenes of Lola Montes burst with hues that are just this side of garish (actually, the maestro with the bright green wig and eyebrows is pretty garish). Often the ring is bathed in a pulsating red, although a deep, almost purplish blue is used for the signature shot of Carol’s Lola, who is brought out before the audience to incite both arousal and anger.
The circus scenes burst with hues that are just this side of garish (actually, the maestro with the bright green wig and eyebrows is pretty garish).
The movie’s defining moment may be an early one, in which the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) announces that Lola will take questions from the audience. Why did she never stay with her lovers? they demand. Is she wearing a bra? Notice that the ringmaster, not Lola, answers.
Is Lola meant to represent the universal actress? A woman leered at by the audience, and then judged for it? Perhaps, though fame in general seems to be the movie’s subject, as well. Lola Montes is partly based on the life of Irish dancer Eliza Gilbert, who eventually adopted the name Lola Montez and had a string of public affairs with prominent men across Europe. Her story, especially as fashioned here by Ophuls, brings to mind figures like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton – women who built careers, if not lives, out of their public pursuits of riches and pleasure. “I’m not a machine for scandal,” Lola protests at one point, but the tragedy of the movie is that she suspects this may, in fact, be all that she is.
Perhaps tragedy is too strong of a word, for Lola Montes registers more as spectacle than emotional drama. Part of the limitation may be Carol, who is ravishing but a bit distant in the title role. As a mannequin in the circus, she’s perfect, but that’s because those moments mostly require an outer shell. Elsewhere, even in the flashbacks, her shell doesn’t crack much (or at least convincingly). Carol never fully lets the audience in as did Ophuls’ Earrings of Madame de… muse, Danielle Darrieux.
Still, Lola Montes lingers as a sensational fever dream. Its circus ring of spiral staircases, turntable stages and men in red masks is hard to shake – even today, when surrealism can be found on Main Street. If you wonder what 1955 audiences made of it, they didn’t make much. The movie failed at the box office and was re-cut by its producers. Thankfully years of reconsideration and a 2008 restoration have it now regarded as one of Ophuls’ best pictures, even if its style isn’t entirely representative of his oeuvre. You have to wonder what sort of cinematic luridness might have been ahead.