The Roar of the Greasepaint
Lola Montès, a legendary difficult 1955 production and box-office turkey that ruined Gamma Films, was howled down by critics, then mercilessly cut in hasty restructuring. It was Max Ophüls’ last film and may have been a contributing cause of his death at age fifty-four. Various reconstructions have surfaced over the intervening years during which critical voice has done a one-eighty, headed by Andrew Sarris calling it “the greatest film of all time,” etc. In the definitive 115-minute 35 mm restoration from La Cinémathèque Française, the masterwork makes its third appearance at the New York Film Festival -- this year as Spotlight Retrospective.
On the surface, a poetic-license biography of the exotic “Spanish” dancer, actress, courtesan, mistress of artists and rulers, and later writer-lecturer -- born Elizabeth Gilbert in Ireland, buried in Brooklyn -- the tale is often seen as a consideration of time and the impermanence of worldly baubles.
At a larger view, it is about life-as-theater, with a nod to Thackeray’s Manager of the Performance. The fabled beauty is center-ring raison d’être attraction of the Mammoth Circus stopping in New Orleans, at a quarter a pop answering questions which give entrée to flashbacks of her life. Ophüls’ very style as well co-stars, paralleling and reinforcing this stage artificiality with tracking and crane and pan shots, fluidly tilting to emphasize romance as opposed to “reality.” Bloated red-dominated color spotlights an array of dwarfs, clowns, jugglers, chorines, men on horses or stilts, veiled, masked, uniformed, all in pre-CGI motion that made this early CinemaScope production postwar Europe’s most costly to that date.
Seriocomic or caricature, the human actors must play their exits and their entrances within this artificial frame. Lola does display a subtle sacrifice, even heroism, with the eager, rich and famous males she gives up over time after youthful flight from a drunken womanizing husband (Ivan Desny) once her mother’s lover. But her relationship with the circus Ringmaster is, if often overlooked, deep and central.
Martine Carol was the nominal marquee name in 1955 -- from unconvincing teen in braids to the present’s full-bodied woman in precarious health who smokes too many cigars. Coincidentally featured that same year as Nana in husband Christian-Jaque’s version of Zola’s novel about a loose woman’s rise to social celebrity, her hair dyed black, the actress is a stilted femme fatale, perhaps in keeping with Ophüls’ metaphor of the framing big top as reality compared to the tableaux vivants of backstory flashback.
Carol is upstaged by her actual and wannabe lovers, particularly the cocky university Student (Oskar Werner) who offers his youth while rushing her to safety out of a Munich revolution in no small part of her making, and a winning Anton Walbrook as her truly loved, hearing- and vision-challenged Bavarian King Ludwig I.
Most intriguing, however, is young-faced Peter Ustinov’s Ringmaster, a touch of malevolence and dandyish cynicism covering a heart that grows into her life. First flashback-seen through varicolored glass panes ascending the staircase to her Riviera hotel room following her scandalous very public humiliation of a scoundrel conductor, he sees through poses and assesses himself and her as “professionals.” Having secured acts for Barnum, he offers her a contract, for no matter whether actual or only perceived, scandal attracts crowds and crowds pay money, especially in America (where the film ran for a bit as The Sins of Lola Montès).
In the make-believe that mints greenbacks, or in the world of serial liaisons, traveling composers, beautiful people and reactionary revolutionaries, there is human caring. And underneath the transitory of uniforms for acrobats, royalty and student fraternities, beyond the show that is life and, equally, face-painted spectacle, below this rough magic of airy charm, lies the warmth of hearts. The show goes on, though its mortal characters must fade.
(Released by Rialto Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)