The movies have often tried to capture the thrill of the circus and no movie tries quite as hard as Lola Montes. Ah, had this been made by Powell and Pressburger or Baz Luhrmann. Yes, we have the cantering horses and the clowns but otherwise, it’s a confusing mixture veering from the surreal goings-on in the big top to real-world flashbacks.
Lola (Martine Carol) is the most scandalous woman in Europe (and the only one, apparently, to smoke cigars), famed beauty and Spanish dancer. According to the ringmaster (a shamefully under-used Peter Ustinov) telling her story, no capital city was spared her libidinous outrages. Lola, now fallen on hard times, dances for her supper – she’s a trapeze artist and forms the pathetic centre of a tawdry series of tableaux – while we see what really happened to her in flashback. It’s left to the film’s viewers to untangle what’s real in Lola’s life and what’s not. Lola’s fall from grace is complete. The plush of the palace has been replaced by the dirt floor of the circus cage where men pay to come and gawp at her.
Based on the true story of n 19th-century sexual adventuress who had dalliances with composer Liszt and Ludwig, the “Mad King” of Bavaria, this was Max Ophüls’ last film (his only one in colour) and here it has been beautifully restored). Sadly it rather shows its age. There’s never much sense of ‘the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd’.
Although much of the acting is shaky and the pace turgid at times it’s a delirious wallow in kitsch. Ophüls was a master of the restless camera and here he pans and tracks with aplomb. To completist movie buffs Lola Montes may be essential viewing but for the rest, Ophüls’ Madame de…, La Ronde, and Letter From an Unknown Woman are far better.
Available on Blu-ray now