Straight to the point: 'Lola Montès' is quite possibly one of the greatest and best films ever made . . . yet only a few have heard of it or even watched it. Stating this is not a matter of ego or arrogance, it is just a sad fact in the history of this truly wonderful motion picture from director Max Ophüls, best remembered for 'La ronde,' 'The Earrings of Madame de . . .,' and the excellent 'Letter from an Unknown Woman.' From the very beginning, the production seemed doomed to fail by quickly developing into the most costly movie made in France at that time. Although it featured popular screen actress Martine Carol, Ophüls' first color film -- which was also unfortunately fated to be his last -- never recovered its expenses and was considered an abysmal failure at the box office.
'Lola Montès' not only received near unanimous censure and disapproval by critics and media, but it is also remembered for being one of the few films ever to be booed and heckled by the general public during its theatrical run. Adding insult to injury, the producers reedited the film in chronological order, eliminating approximately thirty minutes of footage against the wishes of its creator, and it has been lingering in distribution as a version different from its original concept. The lavishly-designed and ornate film would have easily been forgotten if not for those few discerning admirers of dissenting filmmaking, namely the writers of Cahiers du cinéma and Andrew Sarris. Since then, 'Lola Montès' has gained an immensely large following and been transformed into a highly sought after cult classic by cinema aficionados.
From the very moment the film opens at a circus routine, it is apparent Ophüls intends this eventual swan song to be a work of art. The audience is immediately aligned with the listeners of the show as the Circus Master (Peter Ustinov) addresses all those attending with equal fervor and zeal, and he begins to tell a tale of sweeping drama and tragedy. The story is that of Lola Montez, the infamous and scandalous cabaret dancer who rose to the heights of courtesan in early 19th-century Europe. Only, this is nothing like the sort of dramatized life story we are accustomed to. With so much theatricality and deliberate grandeur attached to the entire spectacle, Ophüls envisions his film as more akin to a fictional biography (if such a genre were acknowledged) or better yet, something closer to a hagiography featuring a sinner rather than a saint.
Ophüls also designed his pièce de résistance as a commentary on the cult of celebrity (long before the creation of the paparazzo) and society's obsession with stories of outrageous, scandalous gossip. By placing viewers on par with the spectators of the circus, we, too, regard the shocking Spanish dancer as a seductive and enticing abnormality to our daily existence, much like all the men in Lola Montez's life. (The film's ending makes this idea ever so beautifully poignant.) She is an eye-catching anomaly of immeasurable beauty, one that fascinates us as a creature escaping our understanding of normalcy. She doesn't do anything with purpose to offend or incite a sexual revolution. She simply "is" -- a being deserving the full gravity of our attention to comprehend, and possibly even appreciate, her as a discrepancy within societal norms.
From a contemporary point of view, it is somewhat difficult to imagine how Lola Montez could have provoked such controversy for smoking a cigar in public or what all the fuss is about. But her determination to be seen as an individual with choice was a challenge to the gender customs of her time, however unpremeditated they may have been -- and this conduct eventually led to her becoming a sideshow attraction. Ophüls's 'Lola Montès' is all mise en scène which treats its protagonist (or heroine as Ophüls would rather think of her) as both object and subject. From the fluidity of the camera's movement and staging to the immensity of the production and costume design, the film is a product of sumptuous visual delight -- a masterpiece of filmmaking technique and quiet storytelling. And for the first time since its original theatrical premiere, fans and neophytes can experience the film as it was always meant to be seen in this Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Max Ophüls's 'Lola Montès' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #503) on a Region A locked BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 24-page booklet with color pictures of the film and features an exhaustive essay entitled "Loving Lola" by Gary Giddins. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
Back in 1999, Fox-Lorber released this must-have cult classic on DVD, and the picture quality was quite terrible. To be frank, it looked completely horrendous and was nearly unwatchable. The Criterion Laserdisc over a decade earlier was superior to be sure, but it still lacked the vibrancy expected from such a colorful 1950s production. Now, for the first time since its initial premiere, fans can enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen in its original 114-minute cut. According to the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray package, this high-def transfer was taken from a variety of available negatives and fully restored to match the way it might have been seen during its 1955 debut.
The efforts made by restoration supervisors to save this immensely beautiful film are astonishing and marvelous. Presented in its original 2.55:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio, the AVC MPEG-4 encode is absolutely gorgeous. The Technicolor technicians have revitalized the picture, rejuvenating all damaged prints back to their intended glory, and they almost make us forget the atrocities committed upon this mistreated classic. The palette is luxuriant and abundant as the screen fills with splashes of vivid, brilliant colors and natural-looking skin complexions. While secondary hues are rendered accurately and wonderfully balanced, primaries are richly saturated and full-bodied, bringing the entire film to life.
The image possesses remarkable clarity and resolution with so much for the eye to behold. All the small nuances within the photography which were once blurry and unintelligible are now clearly visible and substantially well-defined. Contrast and brightness levels, too, are pitch-perfect and dynamic, exhibiting clean whites and lush blacks, and shadow details are appreciably discernible throughout. The transfer displays a very thin and consistent grain structure, furnishing the film with a wonderful cinematic appeal. Compared to previous versions and considering its age, the picture quality on this Blu-ray disc is an exceptional and venerable improvement, providing cult cinema enthusiasts with the very best visual presentation of 'Lola Montès' ever.
As with the video, the audio is an equally marked improvement to previous mono presentations. Restoration technicians have culled the film's original 4-track magnetic stereo recording, which is similar to our modern-day four-channel Dolby configuration, from three surviving prints and edited them together into this attractively pleasing DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The results are truly spectacular as Ophüls's 'Lola Montès' has never sounded as beautiful as it does on this Criterion Blu-ray.
Immediately noticeable is the wide expansiveness of the soundstage that nicely penetrates and fills the room with Georges Auric's musical score. Each instrument in the orchestra is distinguishable and sinuously delivered with precision. Movement in the imaging is fluid and smooth, and the lower frequencies, while not as weighty as contemporary sound designs, are ever so subtly evident and provide certain scenes with appreciably realistic depth. Though dialogue is clean and intelligible from beginning to end, the voices of actors still sound as if done in a can, but this is not a fault of the codec as it is the product of the original recording. Despite lacking any rear activity, this lossless mix is a wonderfully welcoming arrangement that is charmingly engaging for a track of this vintage. The techs who worked diligently on the restoration of the soundtrack deserve a great deal of credit for a job well done because Ophüls's work of genius sounds excellent on this high resolution track.
Other than the wonderful essay by Giddins, Criterion also packages Ophüls's 'Lola Montès' with a decent selection of bonus material. Given the film's history, I would have expected a bit more, but this is a nice and entertaining collection nonetheless.
Finally, after decades of only watching Ophüls's swan song in butchered versions, 'Lola Montès' receives the love and attention it has always deserved. The film is a remarkable example of mise en scène and an influential study of the auteur theory. This Blu-ray edition from Criterion gives fans and neophytes a chance to see this beautiful film with an excellent picture and a strong audio presentation. The supplements are entertaining but not as exhaustive as one would expect for a film with so much history. Overall, the entire package comes recommended and is a must-own cult classic for cinema aficionados.