Peter Ustinov, Martine Carol, Ivan Desny, Will Quadflieg, and Anton Walbrook in Lola Montès (1955)


(director/writer: Max Ophüls; screenwriters: Annette Wademant/Jacques Natanson/based on a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent; cinematographer: Christian Matras; editor: Madeleine Gug; music: Georges Auric; cast: Martine Carol (Lola Montes), Peter Ustinov (Circus Master), Anton Walbrook (Ludwig I, King of Bavaria), Henri Guisol (Horseman Maurice), Lise Delamare (Mrs. Craigie, Lola’s mother), Paulette Dubost (Josephine, The maid), Oskar Werner (German Student), Jean Galland (Private Secretary), Will Quadflieg (Franz Liszt), Helena Manson (Lieutenant James’ Sister), Germaine Delbat (Stewardess), Carl Esmond (Doctor), Jacques Fayet (Steward), Friedrich Domin (Circus Manager), Werner Finck (Wisböck, The artist), Ivan Desny (Lieutenant Thomas James); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Caraco; Janus Films; 1955-France/W.Germany-in French with English subtitles)
“The idea behind this biopic might be brilliant but I didn’t see the film’s magic onscreen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The great Max Ophüls (“The Reckless Moment”/”Letter From An Unknown Woman”/”Caught”) directs his final film (died two years after this film was released) and the only one he did in color, that looks sumptuous in CinemaScope but has to do battle with its tedious and at times unintentionally hilarious hokey presentation (showing Lola Montes escaping from her lovers when bored with them by hopping into a trailing blood-colored overdecorated opulent carriage, borrowed from Franz Liszt and driven by a complaining husband-wife servant team), the discursive narrative (based on a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent and penned by Ophüls, Annette Wademant and Jacques Natanson), and the wooden performance from the film’s star, a second-rate pinup type of actress, Martine Carol, who got the role for her box office appeal and obviously not for her acting ability—she lacked the depth to make her role convincing and on top that lacked the beauty to make us believe so many men threw themselves at her.

This moody artsy tone poem of an unconventional biopic on the notorious 19th century courtesan Lola Montes (Martine Carol) lets the camera do most of the talking for its subtle take on love being OK in any form and on love being compromised when it’s crudely taken out of context in a distancing way (as it is in this tableaux vivants presentation). Lola states in the film’s beginning scene “For me, life is movement,” which is about as much as we get to know about her inner thought process. The scandalous lady was the mistress of Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg), the deaf elderly King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), an earnest student (Oskar Werner) who helped her escape a revolution in Bavaria, artists, soldiers and circus performers. The degraded Lola has now become a circus attraction and she’s appearing on a revolving platform as the star attraction in a gaudy New Orleans circus that has the slimy ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) introduce her to the vulgar and impressionable audience that are charged a quarter a piece to ask her mostly crude questions about her personal life. It seamlessly goes into a series of flashbacks to tell of her colorful amoral past, while in the present the aging beauty is asked to perform circus acts. It leads to the thrilling climactic scene, where Lola, who suffers from a weak heart, stands atop a high platform to perform a dangerous jump without a safety net.

The idea behind this biopic might be brilliant but I didn’t see the film’s magic onscreen, as the film itself lacks vitality, form, good acting and seems muddled to the point of being a big mess (a reason for that might very well be it was created in three different language versions, with the rarely seen German one at 140 minutes being the most complete version; it was cut to either 110 minutes in the French version or 90 minutes in its American English version). Lola Montes did poorly at the box office upon its release; at the time it was the highest budgeted film in French history, checking in with a budget of over a million dollars. Its failure bankrupted the production company.