Now that Lola Montès has been restored to its gaudy splendor, it's easy to see how the film's cynicism and casual amorality so enraged audiences in 1955 that nervous film executives decided to carve up their turkey, slicing and dicing Max Ophüls' overstuffed, magnificently plumed creature into easily digestible pabulum. Lola isn't a meal that should go down easy; it's one of those complicated concoctions with questionable ingredients that threatens indigestion, but this last great feast from Ophüls is one to be savored — gristle and all.
Lola Montès became as notorious as the real-life femme fatale whose exploits it purports to chronicle, due more to its particular tone than the film's unconventional structure. A 19th century antecedent of Madonna, Lola (Martine Carol) is a self-made creature, an alluring Spanish dancer known more for her love affairs and ability to stir controversy than for her artistic abilities. Ophüls (Letter from an Unknown Woman) envisions her last act as the star attraction of the Mammoth Circus, a regal yet approachable — for a fee — sideshow freak.
The booming ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) conducts the show, a series of tableaux in which traditional circus acts illustrate Lola's infamous European conquests. The effect is both beautiful and bizarre, like the replicas of her head they use to collect coins from the audience. With the ease of a postmodernist, Ophüls moves from presenting the garish spectacle to the backstage concerns of the performers to a series of flashbacks that sometimes contradicts, and other times illuminates, the opulent farce this carny barker in fancy dress has fabricated.
Ophüls' only color film (truly eye-popping in this vibrant restoration), Lola Montès adopts the lacquered gloss and exquisite compositions of Douglas Sirk's high melodramas, but without the sublimated sexual hysteria. The writer-director seems to share the ringmaster's attitude toward his temptress muse: equally admiring and reproachful, demanding but protective. Lola exists to serve a very specific purpose for each man who enters her sphere of influence, and it has very little to do with who resides beneath that exquisitely maintained facade.
Like its Latin impostor, Lola Montès doesn't find a natural rhythm, sometimes leaping forward, sometimes dragging. Anton Walbrook's King of Bavaria offers a particularly appealing gilded cage, but the film flounders the most when confined to his rarefied realm. It's in the sweat and greasepaint of the circus that Lola really lives, where Ophüls' astounding visuals can't mask the pungent smell of fear.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 16-17, and at 2 and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 18. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.