Ophüls Proves Prophet With Prodigious Lola Montès

sarris 10 Ophüls Proves Prophet With Prodigious Lola MontèsLola Montès
Running time 110 minutes
Written by Annette Wademant, Max Ophüls and Jacques Natanson
Directed by Max Ophüls
Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov

Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, from a screenplay (in French, German and English with English subtitles) by Annette Wademant, Max Ophüls and Jacques Natanson, is based (at least in the opening credits) on a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent. But since no such novel exists, the credit is apparently erroneous, though Saint-Laurent (1919-2000) wrote the books from which several sex-kitten vehicles were derived for Martine Carol (1920-1967), the then very bankable star of Lola Montès.

I first saw a butchered version of the film in New York in 1959, four years after its disastrous opening in Paris in 1955 made it the most spectacular flop for critics and audience alike since La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), from Jean Renoir (1894-1979), bombed both critically and commercially in the pre-World War II Paris of 1939. That film has since wound up on the all-time-best lists of many critics around the world.

One notable exception to the negative critical reaction to Lola Montès in 1955 was that of 23-year-old film critic François Truffaut, who wrote in the periodical Arte: “The cinematographic year now ending has been the richest and most stimulating since 1946, it opened with Fellini’s La Strada, and its apotheosis is Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès. Like the heroine of its title, the film may provoke a scandal and arouse passions, if we must fight, we shall; if we must polemicize, so be it.

“The way the narrative is constructed, the way it hurries the chronology, reminds us of Citizen Kane, though now we have the benefits of Cinemascope, a process here used to the maximum of its potential for the first time. … The structure is new as well as daring; it could well confuse the viewer who lets himself become distracted or who comes in the middle. Too bad. There are films that demand undivided attention, Lola Montès is one of them. The film is constructed rigorously; if it throws some viewers off, it’s because for 50 years most films have been narrated in an infantile way. From this point of view, Lola Montès is not only like Citizen Kane, but also The Barefoot Contessa, Les Mauvaises Recontres, and all these films that turn chronology around for poetic effect.”

We must remember that Truffaut wrote all this and more about Lola Montès 53 years ago, and it resonated with a kind of avant-garde outrage that I still felt eight years later during the first New York Film Festival, in 1963, when I enraged many of the readers of my column in The Village Voice by designating Lola as the greatest film of all time. As I told an audience for an unprecedented third showing of Lola Montès at this year’s 46th New York Film Festival, when I indulged in a bit of Lolatry in 1963, the character in the film I most resembled was Peter Ustinov’s Ringmaster. Indeed, that’s really what I’ve been doing for the 55 years since I began appearing in print. I always just wanted to bang a drum announcing the greatest shows on earth, the films that constituted the alternate universe for me ever since I could remember. My problem is that I cannot convey in print the sheer ecstasy I felt when I finally saw Lola properly for the first time in Paris in 1961. So I beat the drum with my superlatives out of sheer frustration with the limitations of my prose.

Some years ago, I sat on a doctoral panel at N.Y.U. with the late Bill Everson, our own Henri Langlois, for Richard Koszarski’s defense of his thesis on the directorial career of Erich von Stroheim. When I expressed what I thought was a mild reservation about the von Stroheim oeuvre—I notoriously always ranked Sternberg over von Stroheim—Everson laughingly teased me about my addiction to camera movement. And the funniest thing is that I couldn’t say anything in response because he was right. I am addicted to camera movement, and I assume Ophüls is to blame, though Ophüls never indulged in camera movement simply for its own sake. Whereas Ophüls’ camera follows his characters, Stanley Kubrick’s characters follow his camera. And Kubrick generously acknowledged a stylistic debt to Ophüls.

One of the reasons the first American critiques of Lola tended to be negative was that Ophüls was held to be lacking in social significance. Many of his most brilliant films, like Lola, fall into the category of period love stories with the focus on mere women. What could be less “significant” than these sumptuously elegant chick flicks? Give us The Godfather, The Bicycle Thief, The Grapes of Wrath or Potemkin anytime.

The first point I would make to counter this too-facile dismissal of Ophüls is that Ophüls never neglects his male characters. Indeed, I have a hard time finding any male performances anywhere to equal in stature and persuasiveness those of Charles Boyer and Vittoria De Sica in Madame de … or Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook and Oskar Werner in Lola Montès. The final point to be made after my most recent viewings of the film is that Martine Carol’s performance as Lola is more appropriate for the role than most of us imagined at the outset. She is not a great actress, heaven knows, but for this role I can no longer see Danielle Darrieux, Odette Joyeux or Sophia Loren as having been more effective a half-century ago than Carol, who suffered much the same martyrdom in her brief life as Lola did in hers.

Actually, the overriding subtext of Lola Montès emerges more strongly in our own time, besotted as we are with celebrities, now more accessible than ever through all the technological advances in personality magnification and projection. As the ever menacing Sarah Palin proves once again that mere mediocrity is no obstacle to gaining a frightening degree of power, the Ophüls vision is timelier than ever. As I watch Ms. Palin in fearful rapport with hordes of hockey moms, I am reminded not so much of Lola Montès herself as of the larger numbers of celebrity-worshippers with proudly limited intellects in our own time threatening to plunge us irrevocably into the abyss. In his own cultivated way, Ophüls (1902-1957) proved to be something of a prophet. It is not pleasant to be reminded that things can only get worse, but I recommend Lola Montès wholeheartedly nonetheless both for its sensuous delights and its ever exquisite artistry.

asarris@observer.com