As far as I can see ”Lola Montès” is the last film on the list by Max Ophuls. I cannot say that I am entirely sad to see that chapter close. Max Ophuls and I have had a mixed and difficult relationship. Technically his work is never less than brilliant, but on content they always fail to click with me. His movies may trigger emotions in me, but then usually negative ones, such as anger, exasperation or incredulousness, but mostly they just leave me cold. Maybe it is a guy thing, maybe an age thing or maybe I just rate the story far above technical prowess and Ophuls simply fails to deliver on that most important account.
Ophuls goes out with a bang. “Lola Montès” is everything his past films have been, only on a far grander scale. Cinemascope in color, huge sets, crowds of actors, elaborate cinematography, no expenses was spared here. This is rumored to be the most expensive production to be made in Europe at its time and I believe it. It is also rumored to have ruined the production company and it never recovered the costs of its making, likely because it was chopped to pieces on release.
Nevertheless watching it in its full glory is a marvelous experience and if you have the opportunity throw it up on a big screen, it deserves that. “Lola Montès” is an example that the insistence on directorial extravaganza pays off for the viewer if not the production company. The DVD came with a lengthy featurette swooning over the technical achievements of the movie and I tend to agree with that presentation. Technically this is a masterpiece.
However, and this is a big however, the story the movie tells is problematic, at least for me. I have no doubt that out there there are lots of people loving the story and entirely buying into it, but unfortunately I am not among those. I am simply not interested.
Lola Montès was a real character in the first half of the nineteenth century. She was a dancer who won fame, not for her dancing skills, but for her ways with men, how she could insinuate herself into positions of power through seduction and was able to influence politics, most notably trigger a liberal revolution in Bavaria. Eventually she fled Europe, performed for a while in The States and ended up touring Australia causing quite a stir with revealing dances in the gold mining district.
I would say that is a story worth telling. However this movie is an exposition of the scandals Lola Montès caused literally for the public to gawk at. It is essentially the gossip magazines version of the story, full of juicy details, but failing to tell anything about the person itself and then apparently going back on us to tell us, the audience, that we are just wanting a circus show so we can devour the woman with no concern for her.
Maybe the message of the movie is that we should feel bad with ourselves, or grateful that this woman has provided us with all this juicy gossip, but here is the thing; I was never interested in all that gossip. Lola could screw the entire European nobility for all I care. Good for her. It is just not interesting. What I would be interested in learning is her political clout and achievements, but they are either left out or turned upside down. She is no longer instigating a liberal revolution, but causing a conservative revolt against her person. Instead of a reformator she is a succubus, riding the tide until she runs out of friends.
Ophuls builds the story around a circus presentation of her life. Obviously this is a literal allegory of how the public is relishing in her scandals and value her for that entertainment and see it as their right to gawk on her. Unfortunately it just does not work. It looks hopelessly artificial and while on the one hand this is supposed to be a symbolic image, it is also presented as her real fate and that just clashes badly. Either it needs to be so stylized that we see it as symbolism or it must be realistic enough that we buy it and presenting the life of a scandalous dancer as a circus act isn’t that.
It seems obvious that this movie is catered to those who relish the scandals and escapades of the rich and famous and for those there is plenty to bite in. Ophuls loves the big dresses and extravagant sets and this is nowhere more obvious than here. I suspect this just adds to the enjoyment of said audience. I am therefore a bit surprised to see Ophuls turn on his home crowd, telling them that they are just leeches. He shows sympathy for the woman behind the scandals, but never enough so that he shows us any other side of her. Lola Montès is just a tired woman doing what she does best to find… I have no idea. Love?
This is a movie that probably works well for the fans of Ophuls, but it tells the wrong story for me. I would like to say that I was looking for that story, but the truth is that I lost interest in the story quite early and instead resigned to enjoy the scenery.
And the scenery is absolutely something to behold. It is a romantic view of central Europe and it all looks so inviting that I wish I could go there and spend some time and the great thing is that you can find such places. Neuschwanstein is Ludvig of Bavaria’s dream castle, there are places in Provence and Italy that looks like those of the movie and the Alps are gorgeous. Hmmm… maybe I should go there again next summer.