Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Max Ophüls' LOLA MONTÈS, as it should be seen. Thank you, Rialto, Criterion and Cinémathèque Française

What becomes a legend most? Perhaps not actually seeing her/it until the all fuss has died down. In the case of LOLA MONTÈS, that legendary movie from Max Ophüls, this has meant waiting 55 years.
It was worth it.

As the beautifully transferred disc from Criterion explains, the film flopped upon its initial release. (Ophüls -- shown below and one of France's foremost filmmakers -- was not expected to come up with a dud.) Consequently,
the producers took over the film, shortening and re-cutting so that it moved along in sequential order. And it still proved unpopular. Last year Bruce Goldstein's Rialto Pictures, specializing in the restoration of little-seen classics, brought us this new/near-original version, restored by the Cinémathèque Française. The film re-opened in NYC at Film Forum, and now The Criterion Collection has released in DVD,with a full package of extras.  As for its legendary, can-you-top-this reputation, no less than the stalwart and long-lived critic Andrew Sarris declared it "the greatest film ever made."  TrustMovies won't go that far (better than The Leopard?  Better than Women in Trouble?) but he will say, "Yup: it's definitely among the best."

Not being much of a fan of Ophüls' The Earrings of Madame De..., I approached Lola with some trepidation.  Within moments, I was fully captured.  The filmmaker's rich use of color and location, his intelligent and dry dialog and adaptation (with Annette Wademant) of the novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent, his exquisite camerawork (yes, those tracking shots, but ah, the rolling of the boat when Lola finds herself at sea) and especially in his creation of character after character in just a few, briefs strokes, this master movie-maker reaches the epitome of true, less-is-more sophistication.

For a "loose" woman, Lola's affairs, even given the 1950s time frame in which the film was made, are shown in quite circumspect manner, yet this simply adds to the movie's charm and its ability to capture the essence rather than the obvious. The metaphor of the circus-as-life is both a brilliant concept and one that is executed astutely, too.  As good a Nero as he was in Quo Vadis, Peter Ustinov is even better here (below, left) as the circus master and Lola's later-life mentor/lover: He brings a combination of intelligence, cynicism and sadness to the role that is remarkable.  And Martine Carol, below right, though certainly no great actress, was beautiful enough and used so well by her director that she provided everything necessary to fill the role.

Lola Montès looks oddly true to both the time in which it takes place (the 1800s) and the time in which it was made (the 1950s).  Just listening again to that absolutely wonderful little theme song (which I had not heard  for nearly forty years), repeated in so many different ways throughout the film, was a surprise treat.  As was seeing the late German actor Oscar Werner (playing a student), younger here than I had ever encountered him.  Mostly though, the movie is full of the French passion for fully understanding a situation and then using philosophy to explain it properly.  (The scene in the carriage between Lola and that student is just one of the many examples of this.)

What makes the film particularly adult and memorable is its ability to present a remembered life -- full of incident and beauty -- in all its complexity, with our heroine and her ringmaster fully accepting responsibility for what has gone before, as well as for the present and what lies ahead. (This is so unlike the characters in Madame De..., who remain utter twits throughout.) Had I seen the movie when it first appeared, I would have been but 14 and far too young to be the ideal viewer.  Even in my early adulthood, I doubt I could have appreciated Ophüls' achievement.  If you're not amazed, charmed, saddened and floored by this film, wait a few years (or decades) and try it again.  Its classic status can only grow.

Lola Montès is available for sale or rent from all the usual suspects.

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