Lola Montès was Max Ophüls’s final completed film and the only one he ever shot in colour, although he had already started production on Montparnasse 19 at the time of his death. Lola Montès was sadly cut to ribbons when released. It was shot in lavish Eastman Color, and is beautifully filmed. Cinematographer Christian Matras shot several films with Ophüls, including The Earrings of Madame de… (probably Ophüls’ best), as well as films like Le Grand Illusion.
Martine Carol plays the lead—she was a big star in France at the time, but her career went downhill quickly after the introduction of Brigitte Bardot. Much like Monroe, who she was often compared with, she had several marriages, issues with drugs, and suicide attempts and died relatively young. She’s great in the role, which is difficult because she plays the character at different stages of her life
The film is based on the story of a real person, an Irish dancer who was also the mistress of various kings and famous people, including Ludwig I of Bavaria, and lived quite the life. It’s all set during and around a performance in a circus where she ended up later in her life. She’s the central attraction, under the direction of the ringmaster, who is played by Peter Ustinov. The story of her past is told through flashbacks as she goes through her act, with all the various ups and downs of her life.
It’s a great movie, with camerawork that’s amazing. Ophüls was one of the masters of long take, and you can see his influence on everyone from Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick to Todd Haynes, Baz Luhrmann and Paul Thomas Anderson. Allegedly Kubrick was shooting Paths of Glory on the day Ophüls died, and he dedicated the famous tracking shot in the trenches to Ophüls.
Ophüls had a long career that started in the early 30s, and was a director who should have gotten more credit at the time. He made a couple of good noirs and melodramas in Hollywood, but that definitely wasn’t the place for Ophüls. After leaving Germany, he made most of his best films in France. He was one of the first to show what you could really do with a film camera, including going through walls.
There have been a couple attempts to restore Lola Montès, and I think they’ve gotten it as close as possible to the original here. The disc features a documentary called Max by Marcel, by his son Marcel Ophüls, a documentary filmmaker who directed The Sorrow and the Pity. The documentary focuses on the making of Lola Montès in particular. His son had been an assistant on the film. An audio commentary by Ophüls scholar Susan White, an archival episode of a French TV show about Ophüls, some silent footage of Martine Carol demonstrating the various hairstyles she has in the film, and the trailer for the Rialto re-release. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Gary Giddins.