Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Crimes of Lola Montes

Things Max Ophuls hated in his final movie, Lola Montes: The star, Martine Carol.  The fact that he had to shoot in color instead of his beloved black and white; the fact that he had to use stereo instead of mono; so on and so forth.  He might have also hated the fact that he had to shoot the same movie three times, once each in French, German, and English (instead of shooting one version and dubbing the other two languages).

It seems he also hated his producers (rumored to be a pair of mobbed-up wannabes) who inflicted Carol, color, and stereo on him, since he blew his budget on his surreal circus framing device and apparently had nothing left in the tank, money wise, for the supposed climax of the film, the 1848 revolution that sent King Ludwig & Lola Montes packing.

In addition to the gigantic circus goings-on, the first two acts of the film are jammed with expensively costumed extras busily doing stuff, but when it comes to the Bavarian catastrophe, a couple windows get broken, a few guys run around for three minutes, and instead of pulse-pounding peril with howling mobs we get Oskar Werner monologueing the revolution in Montes’ carriage. 

This is despite the fact that upon its release (in 1956) this was the most expensive film made in post World War II Europe (budget: $2 million dollars).

I wouldn’t say bile oozes from every frame, but it is easier to detect Ophuls’ disdain for Martine Carol & disinterest in Lola Montes than his vaunted empathy for the situation of women.

Martine Carol was the French Marilyn Monroe, at least until Brigitte Bardot came along, and had starred in some sexy costume drama romps like 1953’s Lucrece Borgia.

This still from Lucrece Borgia gives you an idea of Martine Carol’s wheelhouse and what the hapless producers of Lola Montes presumably hoped to get: a racy drama about a notorious demimondaine romancing her way through art, war, and revolution, with plenty of famous lovers and ripped bodices and, when possible, no bodices at all.

Instead, they opted for Max Ophuls, who threw away the screenplay and substituted his own dyspeptic artsy take on fame and scandal that was the opposite of sexy.

Ophuls gives the viewer no passionate embraces, maybe a couple kisses, and virtually no Martine Carol skin.

The sexual thermostat of the movie is set by Ophul’s casting of his collaborator, Peter Ustinov, as the ringmaster of the circus that packages Lola Montes’s life and torment for the delectation of the rabble.

Ustinov, Ur-Teletubby & diffident schlub, is ill-equipped to convey passion, lust, insinuating charm, or demonic mastery, so the famous circus comes across less as a carnival of souls than an over-budgeted village fete presided over by the schoolmaster’s favorite but not particularly talented pet.

Lola’s big love interest, King Ludwig, is an old, boring guy and he and Lola do old, boring things like sipping tea and reading stuff to each other and going to the ear doctor.  Franz Liszt puts in an appearance, but only to depict their final parting, not their affair.  Wagner & Chopin, name-checked only, no scenes.  

I’m guessing Ophuls was not interested in pandering to the audience’s prurient interest in the sex lives of Europe’s great geniuses of the 19th century.  And if he saw parallels between Martine Carol (pretty bad actress) and Lola Montes (reputedly terrible dancer), he was not going to turn his movie into a celebration of how they sexed their way into 19th century social history…and into Max Ophuls’ oeuvre.

Despite Ophuls’ fetishistic love of motion—of actors and extras, of cameras with his legendary tracking shots—he forces Carol/Montes to be static for most of the film.  When she isn’t sitting motionless in the circus tableaus, she’s sitting or reclining, or she’s being guided through her paces in the circus like a imperfectly trained show horse by Ustinov’s braying ringmaster.

The few times Carol is called upon to move and act—such as the scene where she assaults her conductor and marches through the audience to hand over the jewels he gave her to his wife—she gives a decent account of herself.  

But most of the time she’s treated as an object under critical examination—a fading butterfly on a pin in a cabinet--and it seems that neither Ophuls nor the audience can figure out what all the fuss is about.

The explanation, apparently, is that sex and notoriety have been commodified in the modern media circus and Max Ophuls disapproves…and he’ll take $2 million of your money to show it.

Audiences were not beguiled—the premier engagement apparently featured some unpleasantness from patrons who had expected their usual dose of Martine Carol—the movie tanked, was cut and recut, and finally reconstructed for a Criterion release a few years ago.

Two features on the second disk—one, an absolutely brilliant feature on Ophuls made by Michel Mitrani for French TV in the 1960s, the other a more recent interview with Ophuls’ son Marcel—are in my opinion better than the movie itself.

But French New Wave cineastes adored Lola Montes, apparently because Ophuls went full auteur & did it his way, and Andrew Sarris at one time proclaimed Lola Montes was the best movie ever made.

Go figure.  And check out the Criterion two-disk set.


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