Lola Montes returns, triumphant

(Canscene) — What’s the difference between a courtesan and a prostitute? That depends, but Eliza Gilbert was no fifty dollar hooker. Neither was she your run-of-the-mill courtesan.

Martine Carole as Lola

Born into a British army family stationed in India, she was sent to England to be schooled and proved a rebellious, unruly child in the home of her aunt. In her teens she severed her connections with family and targeted a stage career as a Spanish dancer; hence the adoption of the name Lola Montez

After a disastrous marriage at 16 to a sadistic drunk Lola did her best to perform as a dancer without any great success. But her real talent was in choosing male companions of stature in society, including composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria

Lola’s fascinating story was told by the German film director Max Ophuls who placed it in a circus setting with Martine Carole as an impoverished Lola performing for brash ringmaster Peter Ustinov. The film opens in the circus ring with Ustinov at 34 still slim enough to traverse the ring with an almost serpentine grace as he touts the scandals of Lola. The film, made in France bears the French surname Montes, instead of Montez.

Behind Lola are her great adventures with lovers like Liszt and Ludwig I, the latter almost costing both her and the king their lives. Scenes alternate between the circus where myth holds sway and the reality showing us Lola’s moody relationships with the men in her life.

On its release, audiences hated the film, hesitating to lend their imaginations to the unusual nature of its storytelling. The producers hacked it to pieces and re-released it; even so it was a box office failure. Mercifully all the excised scenes were preserved

Now the late Max Ophuls has triumphed. Lola Montes has been restored by the Cinematheque Francaise to its original length and stunning coloring. Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of the ringmaster and Anton Walbrook’s Ludwig I are outstanding while Martine Carol as Lola remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, as Ophuls intended. The circus is a metaphor for the myhthmaking that accompanied her throughout her life.

Canadian audiences first saw the restoration at a recent Toronto screening at the Cinematheque Ontario but it’s not likely to be seen there again in the near future. True cinema buffs should needle art houses and repertory theatres to do their best to obtain prints from Cinematheque Francaise.

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