A legendary disaster on its initial release, and consequently one of the great causes célèbres of auteurist film criticism, Max Ophüls’ Franco-German swan song Lola Montès follows a record third inclusion in the New York Film Festival with a weeklong run at two local cinemas. Ophüls’ ironic superproduction — as garish and vulgar as any mid-’50s Hollywood costume drama, albeit knowingly so — takes the career of the 19th-century adventuress Lola Montès as the basis for a meditation on the spectacle of stardom. A new digital restoration, including five “lost” minutes, only heightens this pop art premise. The restored version has the cleaned-up color and hyper-real clarity of a refurbished antique diner. Exploding out from the screen, Martine Carol’s lips put the redness in red.
The opening sequence is filled with promise, camera and characters cavorting around static Lola (Carol), the central attraction in a fantastic circus. But the movie grinds to a halt 10 minutes into the delirium, with the diva and her current lover, Franz Liszt, ensconced in a deluxe traveling carriage, and never after regains its momentum. There are moments when Ophüls’ deconstructed historical pageant anticipates more radical films by Manoel de Oliveira and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who made a movie about Lola’s royal lover, Mad Ludwig of Bavaria. But, a lesser film than Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, let alone The Earrings of Madame D …, Lola Montès can be shockingly inert — a stale Sachertorte that might have worked as a silent film or an awkward early talkie.
Much of the blame goes to Carol, a scandal-prone screen siren foisted on the production. While it is possible to understand the spell her Lola casts over Peter Ustinov’s perspiring ringmaster or Anton Walbrook’s unexpectedly sympathetic Ludwig, it’s impossible to see this impassive beauty as a force of nature capable of rupturing the social order. Her failure is contagious: Ophüls’ climactic tracking shot is less majestic than abstractly poignant in leaving the stolid star surrounded by her gawking public.
Of course, Lola Montès is also a footnote in the psychohistory of taste. Like its subject, the movie demonstrated the power to cloud men’s minds. After its 1963 showing at the NYFF, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris announced he’d stake his critical reputation (“such as it is”) on the proposition that Lola Montès was the greatest film of all time — repeating the assertion throughout the decade. Not until Pauline Kael pledged allegiance to Last Tango in Paris in 1973 would an American critic fall so hard. It was, to cite another Ophüls title, a reckless moment.
Sarris wasn’t blind to the movie’s faults; indeed, he came to appreciate Ophüls’ self-reflexive extravaganza as an allegory for his own passion: “I fully understand why most other viewers can never love Lola as devotedly as I.”
The sincerity of this true confession notwithstanding, Sarris’ enthusiasm effectively turned the movie itself into Martine Carol. The critic’s elevation of personal taste to cosmic judgment lumbered the object of his admiration with expectations impossible to fulfill. (Royal, Playhouse 7)