Lola Montès, 1955
Director: Max Ophüls; Screenplay: Max Ophüls, Annette Wademant, based on the [never actually written] novel La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint Laurent
In the 1960s, Andrew Sarris declared unabashedly, “Lola Montès is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time.” It seems fitting that the auteur theory’s chief proponent in English-language criticism should fix on this film in particular. For one thing, its director, Max Ophuls, had a somewhat stormy relationship with his producers; and one of the core principles of auteur criticism is that a great director will turn such practical hardships to artistic advantage. Furthermore, Ophuls was the darling of the French critics at Cahiers du cinéma (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, et al.) who proposed the politique des auteurs in the first place. While Truffaut especially railed against most commercial French films of the 1950s (collectively pilloried as the “Tradition of Quality”), he had nothing but praise for Ophuls. Truffaut wrote, “There are films that demand undivided attention. Lola Montès is one of them.” Ironically, though, Alan Williams labels the work of Ophuls as the summit of the “Tradition of Quality”, due to its big budgets, production values and stars.
Similarly, the film garnered considerable clout by way of its star power. Once Martine Carol had signed onto the project, her perceived box-office bankability took the film to a new level of financing. The original, 1954 budget of 2 million deutschmarks rose to 8 million (roughly $US2 million) by 1955, making Lola Montés the most expensive European film since the end of World War II.
Ophuls has often been called an ironic director because the obvious patterns of camera movements, repetitions of dialogue, and other details seem to imply a consciousness that invites us to distance ourselves from some events, pass judgment on particular characters, or reflect on an abstract “meaning” that is the result of intertextual references to other films, novels, or plays.
This reflexive approach is emphasised in the very first and last shots of the film, as we are brought into and out of the circus by way of a curtained proscenium.
Ultimately, though, Lola Montès is sheer cinematic pleasure, and Ophuls’ inventiveness is evident in every frame. Truffaut notes that CinemaScope is “here used to the maximum of its potential for the first time,” and indeed one would be hard-pressed to find a more unusual deployment of the widescreen process than in Ophuls’ carefully crowded, overwrought framings. It is easy to see why later filmmakers as divergent as Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Demy were so heavily influenced by Ophuls’ work. We might say that, like Kubrick, Ophuls was a true “filmmaker’s filmmaker” – and Lola Montès a true cinephile’s film. © Rodney Hill, March 2006
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