There is a small treasure trove of women throughout history that were known as being independent lovers. These women are famous for bouncing from one love to another as often as they bucked convention and traveled the world. I look up to these women because they were able to not let the crushing world of societal expectations get them down. One famous woman who lived a very public life and had a multitude of lovers was Lola Montes. In 1955, Max Ophuls turned her story into a whirling dervish of a movie. It would end up being both his last film and his most spectacular failure. Audiences rejected such a frank portrayal of a mistress’ life. Audiences rejected it so much that the distribution company for the film seized the print and re-edited it without Ophuls’ approval in order to show in America. That didn’t really work out for them either. It wasn’t until 1968 did a group of intrepid film scholars rediscover and re-edit Lola Montes to its former power. Lola Montes finally got the treatment she deserved… or did she? duh duh duh!!!!
By the time we join Lola Montes all of her former escapades are behind her. She is stuck in a circus sideshow about her life and guided by a ringmaster. She sits placidly in front of the camera as fervent activity surrounds her. She takes the audience back to the real story behind the bravura provided by the ringmaster. The first affair we see is the end of the relationship she had with Franz Liszt. There is this sense of finality to everything they are doing even though each one is unsure on why they should end it. As a part of their final goodbyes, Lola describes future trysts they will have together. It is almost like she has the exact same relationship with several other men. As the circus act progresses, we learn more about Lola’s life including her being handed off to an older man by her mother, running away with her mother’s lover only to be beaten and harassed by his alcoholic nature, and finally her travels to Bavaria where she became mistress to the king and received a mansion and title for her efforts. Each scene seems to be one of Lola in mid-flight. She never slows down and never looks back. At least until it is too late to fix anything.
Ophuls has a knack for portraying women as
self-possessed and fully capable individuals. Her affairs are commented on a couple of times, but her ways are treated as a natural progression of who she is. She isn’t afraid to be an awful dancer or to smoke cigars in public. It doesn’t seem to matter what the angry mob outside her door is saying about her, because she will never give in. She is fiercely independent and that is most exciting and refreshing. Ophuls compliments this freshness of character with wonderfully complex shots and a swirling camera. The circus scenes in particular showcase Ophuls predication for grandiose yet detailed shots. There is constant activity in the circus, no matter how still our protagonist is. Ophuls was able to take a concept that has been photographed numerous times and make it feel refreshing and new.
As I was researching this movie, I came across an article that discusses Max Ophuls dislike for his female lead. He felt she was a beautiful mannequin forced to pose and act because its master made it. (Ok so nobody ever said this exact phrase, but I thought of such a great metaphor I couldn’t help but include it.) The actress, Martine Carol, was forced on him from the studios because she was a young sex pot looking for a prestige movie. While I do agree with Ophuls that Carol never showed a range of emotion befitting such a lively character, I also think that Ophuls used this challenge to his advantage. Her wooden acting showcases the character’s need to detach from the events around her and pursue happiness even if it is just at a circus.
This film is an interesting artifact of a career and a time and place where things depicted here could be thought of as scandalous. I would definitely suggest watching this movie and reading everything you can find on it. It has a great history and really enhances your viewing of the movie.