||Here's a question for you: what's the most controversial cult movie of all time? Could it be John Waters' Pink Flamingos, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, or the Belgian Man Bites Dog? It depends on how deep you want to get into it, really, but one contender is assuredly one of the most beautiful, Max Ophuls' Lola Montes, which was released in 1955 to general confusion and hatred. How could this director, previously known for his good taste, try to build up Martine Carol, of all people, as a great actress capable of a full gamut of tearjerking emotion?
Why, it was preposterous! If you are wondering, well, "Martine who?" there's a good reason why you might not have heard of her, for she was not exactly a nine days wonder, but for a while, a year or two, she was France's most famous female star, and after she played Lola, that star fell dramatically as it was felt she had overstretched a very modest talent in her portrayal, and besides, who wanted to see Martine Carol as a raven-haired brunette? In her day, she was regarded as the Gallic rival to Marilyn Monroe, yet while the Hollywood star is recalled vividly, not so much for Martine.
Not helping Carol's enduring appeal was that she had already fallen into semi-obscurity when she passed away in slightly mysterious circumstances at age forty-six, in her bath, of an apparent heart attack; the tabloids claimed drugs were involved, and dark deeds were supposed, but it seems she had more or less drunk herself into an early grave. That grave was desecrated when thieves dug up her corpse, not to hold for ransom as Charlie Chaplin's was a decade later, but to loot it for her jewellery that was rumoured to be buried with her. Yes, people can be that heartless - and there were no gems, anyway.
Actually, the person responsible for Carol's demise was Brigitte Bardot, no, she hadn't murdered her, but the so-called sex kitten was so blazingly famous that she demolished most of the other starlets in her trail across celebrity. Nobody was interested in Martine and many others with BB around, and Martine had already tried to act in a serious role and, in the judgement of those who saw it (and those who did not), she had failed. So to appreciate Lola Montes, you had that obstacle to get over, that the leading lady was a dead loss whose charisma had deserted her as she sabotaged the master Ophuls' intentions.
As the film was chopped about by distributors over the years, its cachet oddly began to grow, in a "The director's cut was a masterpiece!" sort of manner, nothing novel these days, but a fresh take back in the sixties. Critic Andrew Sarris was upfront about loving the film, calling it the best ever, and spearheaded the cult following that had no interest in the whingers putting it down: for them, this was supreme cinematic beauty, and nobody was going to alter that opinion. Thus the restored version was lauded and rediscovered, as it was in 2008 when the director's son Marcel Ophuls (also a director) presented a newly restored version in keeping with his father's dreams.
Once again, viewers were divided. It was pretty to look at, sure, but wasn't it kind of cluttered? Wasn't there a vacuum at its centre, namely Martine? They were not about to let her rest easy in that new grave, evidently. Yet Lola Montez, the real, eighteenth century courtesan and Spanish dancer (who wasn't Spanish, she was Irish), had lived an equally short life and been the victim of celebrity during her fame much as Carol had suffered, this film's theme being once you are well-known, famous or even notorious, you will have the public believing you are their property to treat as well or badly as they see fit, and even sympathy may be thin on the ground should it all go horribly wrong for you.
Some discerned Ophuls' experiences in filmmaking in the fictionalised story he was telling about his heroine, picking up her story near the end when she was an attraction in the circus, with Peter Ustinov as ringmaster (not entirely unfeeling towards his biggest act), and, in the proper cut, flashing back to Lola's affairs and marriages that made her so infamous across the world, from a quickie with heartthrob composer Franz Liszt to a potentially world-changing relationship with the King of Bavaria (a charming performance by another cult star, Anton Walbrook), with Oskar Werner, another troubled performer with a cult following, as a revolutionary who throws events into sharp relief. Whether all this moved you was a matter of how invested you could be in Carol's doll-like performance, she didn't quite settle, but that made her an intriguing focus almost despite herself. However, Lola Montes remains a movie nobody will reach a consensus on, this far more than others. And that's perfectly fine.
[That Criterion Blu-ray has the following features:
New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary featuring Max Ophuls scholar Susan White
"Max Ophuls ou le plaisir de tourner," a 1965 episode of the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps, featuring interviews with many of Ophuls’s collaborators
Max by Marcel, a new documentary by Marcel Ophuls about his father and the making of Lola Montès
Silent footage of actress Martine Carol briefly demonstrating the various glamorous hairstyles in Lola Montès
Theatrical rerelease trailer from Rialto Pictures
New and improved English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Gary Giddins.]