Andrew Sarris in 1963 dubbed this film the greatest ever made, and although he's noted for his quirky opinions, he's no fool. A masterpiece, LOLA MONTES is certainly director Max Ophuls' greatest achievement. In flashback, we take a fascinating look at the life of the passionate yet oddly
passive title character (Carol, more perfect in the part than she could possibly have fathomed). Introduced by a New Orleans circus master (Ustinov), the aging Lola answers (or has answered for her) personal questions from the audience for a small fee. The ringmaster tells of her many romances
throughout Europe, including one with Franz Liszt (Quadflieg) and another with the king of Bavaria (Walbrook). In the last scene, Lola (who throughout has been made to perform various acts like a well-trained seal) stands atop a high platform, preparing for a dangerous jump. Her health is as
precarious as her position, yet the ringmaster removes the safety net. The finale is unforgettable.
Along with Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS, this is one of the most gorgeous films ever shot in color. Eastmancolor generally pales beside Technicolor; leave it to Ophuls to make the most of it. Ditto the use of CinemaScope, which Ophuls didn't want and tried to negate by using pillars and
curtains at the edges of the frame. The effect is to frame the whole affair as a performance, and Ophuls' innate visual flair makes shot after shot (e.g. the descending chandeliers at the opening) a stunning use of widescreen. He even knows when to ditch both resources, as Lola's most intimate
moments are signaled with a ghostly blue monochrome and a tight closeup with most of the frame in black. His customary genius with the camera has rarely been on better display, as he dizzyingly dollies 360 degrees around the trapped, immobile Lola while the exploitative ringmaster spins her
platform. Never cutting when camera movement will do, Ophuls tilts, tracks and cranes magnificently, embodying Lola's flashback motto, "For me, life is movement." By contrast, the overwhelmingly cluttered mise en scene of the circus all but smothers the degraded courtesan.
Carol doesn't appear young enough as the teen-aged Lola nor does she look really ravaged at the finale, but her masklike quality allows Ophuls a great chance to project, indulging the French fondness for casting Woman as Cinema. Wolbrook is quietly heartrending as the aging monarch, and Werner, as
a young student and sex interlude for Lola, displays the promise he would later fulfill so well. Top honors, though, go to the magnificent Ustinov, who, two Oscars elsewhere notwithstanding, has never done anything better. Both heartless and tender to Lola, abusive and always on the verge of
falling in love, his rueful expression and biting wit speak volumes that otherwise never surface. A film whose power is in the image itself, the endlessly amazing LOLA MONTES explores the magic (and the cost) of illusion as few films have ever done.
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