Presented by the Mammoth Circus comes a once in a lifetime spectacle. The celebrated, infamous actress, dancer and courtesan Lola Montès (Martine Carol) recreates her scandalous life as a glittering extravaganza. At the behest of the Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), she sings, dances, cavorts with circus animals and performs a host of astounding acrobatic feats climaxing with a nerve-wracking high-wire act. As Lola re-stages episodes from a life of love, lust and loss, her mind drifts back to those days when she dallied with famed composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), her failed marriage to Scottish nobleman Lieutenant Thomas James (Ivan Desny) and the notorious affair with King Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook) that sparked a revolution in Bavaria.
The final film from master director Max Ophüls, virtuoso of the mobile camera, was the only work he made in colour. Sadly, Lola Montès was also a costly box office failure upon initial release and likely contributed to the heart attack that claimed Ophül's life two years later. The film was adapted from the novel penned by Cécil Saint-Laurent, itself inspired by the life of the actual Nineteenth century dancer and courtesan Lola Montez the stage name of the Irish-born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert. Like several of Saint-Laurent's previous works the original text was something of a racy affair but for his screen adaptation Ophüls had something altogether more ambitious in mind. Part inspired by the media's fascination with the love affairs of Hollywood mega-star Judy Garland and tabloid fixture Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ophüls tweaked the story into a satire of the public's obsession with celebrity. To satisfy the baying crowds and earn a living Lola Montès literally puts her private life on public display, transforming her personal tragedies into a grotesque yet nevertheless compelling spectacle. It is a concept that takes on added resonance in this age of car crash reality television where some careers are built almost entirely upon personal revelations and shameless publicity stunts.
Whereas the circus show plays to the public perception of Lola as a shameless if glamorous sexpot, the flashbacks give another side to the story, one altogether more melancholy. More than simple spectacle, Ophüls utilizes this intriguing conceit to proffer the notion that art can contectualize, psychoanalyze and draw forth a certain poetry latent in the complexities of one's own life. Ophüls celebrates Lola as a spirited, independent woman who acts on impulse and makes no apologies for that though at the same time remains something of a prisoner. A prisoner of fate, of public perception and to a degree of the men who cannot help but fall in love with her. Ophüls also criticizes a society that thrives on gossip yet hypocritically derides those that provide it.
Though the film was likely too high concept and too cynical for a Fifties audience viewed today the themes are undeniably thought-provoking. However, while the parade of sumptuous costumes, high wire antics, amazing lighting effects, shifting aspect ratios and balletic tracking shots is nothing short of mesmerizing, the tone of the drama remains somewhat arch and remote. Viewed in retrospect, Lola Montès marked the moment when the heady romanticism of old European cinema gave way to the vibrant modernism of the Nouvelle Vague. Leading lady Martine Carol was much criticized at the time for her perceived shortcomings as an actress. Even Ophüls himself was none too happy about having her as his star. A huge box office draw at the time, Martine Carol led a life almost as tempestuous as her onscreen alter-ego culminating in a tragically early death from a heart attack at the age of forty-six. For all the criticisms slung her way she actually inhabits her role while quite ably with no small amount of radiance. Meanwhile Peter Ustinov essays the alternately sinister and compassionate circus master demonstrating his remarkable verbal dexterity with multiple languages. Although La Ronde (1950) remains arguably Ophüls' last great masterwork, Lola Montès is still an essential film from the great filmmaker whose technical virtuosity earned the admiration of filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Paul Thomas Anderson.