With all due respect to film critic Andrew Sarris, Max Ophüls’ legendary Lola Montès (1955) is not “the greatest film ever made.” I’m not sure I’d even attempt to say what the greatest film ever made is, but it’s not this. I admire Sarris’ enthusiasm for the film (and the way he expressed it), but I can’t actually share it. I first encountered Ophüls at the age of 15 with The Exile (1947), which, at the time, I viewed strictly as a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. movie, having no idea who Ophüls was, or that he should impress me. I liked the film and have fond memories of it, but I’ve never been able to see it again. Later I caught up with Ophüls in a more serious way, but nothing about his work ever quite the rang the gong for me. La Ronde (1950) came close.
I’ve tried to convince myself that if I saw Lola Montès in 1961 as Sarris did that I would have been blown away, but I can’t quite manage it, especially if I assume that I’d seen the films of Josef von Sternberg at the time. For me, Ophüls draws a good bit on Sternberg—just as Ophüls pretty clearly influences everyone from Kubrick to Ken Russell and films as diverse as Robert Wise’s Star! (1968) and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001). (Both titles owe something to Lola Montès.) The difference is that these other directors and films connect with me on an emotional level in a way that Ophüls’ work never does. When I first saw Lola Montès 25 or so years ago, it bored me beyond words. Seeing it again for this review, it didn’t bore me, but apart from its surface gloss and the clever central conceit—of presenting the life of the notorious Lola Montès (Martine Carol) as a circus spectacular while the dying woman recalls her life—it didn’t actually involve me.
Oh, Lola Montès is a beautiful thing to look at—a barrage of moving camera, theater, colored lights, impossibly ornate decor—but what is it beyond that? It’s a fairly traditional biopic with an unusual (for the time) structure and a great visual sense. After seeing the film, I knew that Lola had affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria, and maybe Richard Wagner and Frederic Chopin—not to mention a raft of lesser luminaries—but I knew that before. Some blame the lack of depth to Lola’s character on the stone-statue performance of Martine Carol, and that may be the case, but the poor woman has reams of impossible dialogue to slog through in artificial situation after artificial situation. A more charismatic actress might have pulled it off, but the problem isn’t entirely hers. Still, it’s a film that ought to be seen for its sheer creative verve, which is much more evidently alive than the film itself.