Release Date: Feb. 16
Director: Max Ophuls
Writers: MaxOphuls, Cécil Saint-Laurent, Annette Wademant
Cinematographers: Christian Matras
Starring: Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov
Studio/Run Time: Criterion, 115 mins.
Way back in the early 2000s, the films of German-born, Paris-based director Max Ophuls languished out of print.
While the French nouvelle vague and its insouciant modernity, guns, dames and jittery jump cuts remained much feted, discussed and repackaged, Ophuls and his fin de siècle Europe, aristocratic mores, women on the verge of nervous breakdowns and loooooong tracking shots fell out of sight. He might’ve remained in darkness were it not for the support of admiring directors like Stanley Kubrick, Todd Haynes and P.T. Anderson, and The New Yorker
’s Anthony Lane, who raved that “the atmosphere in [Ophuls’] movies is so congenial, and the brilliance so lightly worn, that we may not notice how acutely he is laying bare our illusions.”
With the painstakingly restored fever dream of his financially and critically catastrophic last feature, Lola Montès, our portrait of the artist in his final years is complete. Eliza Rosanna Gilbert—a dancer and actress most often called by her stage name, Lola Montès—pioneered the “cult of celebrity.” Paramour to composers Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin and Richard Wagner, not to mention numerous dukes, counts and even King Ludwig I of Bavaria, her affairs were fodder for the papers, and sometimes cause for riots. In our age, where celebrity indiscretions bump war reports from the front page, it’s easy to see the role Montes played in the public consciousness 150 years previous.
It’s fitting then that Ophuls anticipates such modern media circuses, eschewing simple biography for his heroine and setting her in a context more grandiose and garish: a real circus. The film opens with Montès, the main attraction in a pinwheeling fanfare of crimson and gold, as an American audience crassly barks questions about her past lovers and physical measurements. “We’ll show everything that women dream of doing, but lack the courage to do,” the circus carnie proclaims, enacting the scandals that made (and unmade) Montès.
From the big-top tent, we’re whisked around the world as our heroine marries for love, fortune, fame and whimsy, each scenario cast in an audacious, delirious tint. Montès’ ascent through European high society in the middle 19th century is recast as a trapeze stunt, the ringmaster shouting, “Every single act of hers is fraught with danger!” We follow Montès and her reckless passions through palaces and theaters, backstages and boudoirs, but our sight remains partially obscured behind veils, scrims, stained glass, curtains. It’s an Ophuls trademark, making the audience aware that the very act of observing is always compromised and composed of theatrical artifice.
Originally released in 1955, this story of the most scandalous, sexually liberated and licentious woman of the 19th century was a box-office flop, so poorly received that producers excised 20 minutes and hacked the story to a linear narrative that only further confused viewers. Finally, in 2008, the film received a much-needed facelift and restoration, presented here on this two-disc set. What we see now is as close as we’ll get to Ophuls’ original version of what his narrator deems “the most sensational act of the century.” Names like Jamie Jungers, Rielle Hunter and Daisy Wright have disappeared from our gossip pages, but the name of Lola Montès, and our last glimpse of her “among the wild beasts,” will remain in the light.