Lola Montes

Director: Max Ophuls

France • 1955 • 115 minutes

Andrew Sarris, the writer who imported French auteur criticism to America in the 1960s, famously put his reputation on the line by declaring Lola Montes ‘the greatest film ever made.’ A foolish claim, perhaps, but Sarris’ polemic did have the beneficial effect of forcing fellow critics to see that director Max Ophuls was more than a mere stylist. Indeed, the meaning of Ophuls’ films is so inextricably bound up with his style — or mise-en-scene – that the two cannot be separated. This becomes very clear when watching the beautifully restored version of Lola Montes, whose dreamy flashbacks, vivid colours, sumptuous wide-screen compositions and elaborate camera movements have been miraculously reconstructed so that future generations can appreciate one of cinema’s richest visual treats. Loosely based on the life of Lola Montez, the Irish-born 19th century adventuress and courtesan, the film is set in a gaudy circus where the ageing heroine is forced to relive her supposedly scandalous past for the entertainment of a prurient public. Ophuls’ sublime artistry transforms this potentially salacious spectacle into a profound meditation on the intricate workings of desire and memory. The whole set-up can be seen as a metaphor for the film viewing experience itself, but Ophuls’ aesthetic strategies are so subtle and refined they almost defy analysis. Seeing Lola in this splendid new print, it’s easy to imagine why Andrew Sarris got carried away all those years ago. Peter Walsh.

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