Lola Montes (Criterion), the final film from French auteur Max Ophuls, has been a hard film to see in any form resembling the director’s original conception. It was originally released in a version drastically recut by its producers, who were dumbfounded by the dense, layered carnival of affairs of the melancholy memory film Ophuls created. A restoration in the sixties only brought it partly back to Ophuls’ grand design. A previous DVD release by Fox Lorber was taken from the most complete version available but was poorly mastered in the wrong aspect ratio and a non-anamorphic presentation, with muddy color and crummy registration. Criterion has mastered this edition, for both DVD and Blu-ray, from the new 2008 film restoration (which received a too-brief release in repertory and arthouses across the country) and it is stunning, especially so on Blu-ray, where it seems to glow and arise from the screen. It’s the only film that Max Ophuls made in color and widescreen and has long been celebrated as one of the greatest triumphs of color film. This edition finally shows viewers why.
The tension between genuine emotion and the desire for love that suspends many of Max Ophuls’ dramas becomes the melancholy center ring of his final drama. He frames the story of “the world’s most scandalous woman” as a circus spectacle/pageant and contrasts the outrageous sensationalism of her reputation, garishly performed as a big-top cabaret narrated by ringmaster/MC Peter Ustinov, with offstage moments of tender candor and poignant, poetic flashbacks of her “notorious” affairs with artists, composers, politicians and royalty, from Franz Liszt (Will Qualdflieg) to King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Swept along by Ophuls’ gliding camerawork, which floats through the film as if on the wings of angels, her life bounces between cinematic ballet (with Ophuls the choreographer and conductor) and high-wire balancing act while the sweep and momentum of his camerawork weaves the spheres of her life—the flashbacks of her past life, the pageant presented in the center ring of the circus and the backstage drama of her failing health.
Ophuls’ sweeping camera is both intimate and reserved as his compositions increasingly entrap Lola in her surroundings, until she ends up a veritable automaton resigned to her gilded cage, an object of desire whose affections can be sampled for a small piece of silver. Martine Carol’s Lola is hardly the most passionate or electrifying of Ophuls’ stars—her quiet private demeanor stands in sharp contrast to her public flamboyance and fits of pique—but it provides a sad core of the woman who loved well, if not too wisely. While Ustinov’s ringmaster nightly narrates her exploits to a throng of scandal-hungry spectators, she performs with a face hardened in indifference and resignation to her imprisonment.
Criterion supplements the film with commentary by Max Ophuls scholar Susan White (in-depth and very informative, but often sounds like she’s reading from a prepared lecture) and the new 33-minute “Max by Marcel” featuring son Marcel Ophuls recalling the production (with help from other folks who worked on the film). But the highlight is the unusually piquant 1965 TV documentary Max Ophuls ou La Ronde, a portrait of the director and his films through interviews with his collaborators (cinematographer Christian Matras, camera operator Alain Douarinou, screenwriter Annette Wademant, plus producers and production assistants and many others) and stars (including Simone Simon, Danielle Darrieux, Peter Ustinov and Martine Carroll). Director Michel Mitrani doesn’t merely bring in a tremendous wealth of first-hand remembrances from a great collection of acting legends and French film artists, he brings an ambition to the production to match it: he brings his subjects into a recreation in miniature of Ophuls’ circus set from Lola Montes, setting them against a lovely pageant of tumblers and acrobats and trained horses and, for one scene, dancers in evening dress turning the center ring into a ball. Numerous participants remark on Ophuls’ habit of pacing constantly while working and link his constant movement with his camerawork: “That’s the real reason for his traveling shots. He liked to see characters in motion so he could accompany them.” It doesn’t really explain his aesthetic sensibility but it’s a marvelous observation and one of many delightful anecdotes of the director. The video quality is primitive but it’s an archival treasure. Also features silent test footage of actress Martine Carol displaying the various hairstyles, the trailer from the 2008 theatrical rerelease and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Gary Giddins. As is Criterion’s practice, the DVD and Blu-ray editions are priced the same.