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MOVIE REVIEW

Tragic, ethereal 'Lola Montes'

October 10, 2008|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times
  • The newly restored version of Max Ophuls classic "Lola Montes" opens on Oct. 10 at the Royal Theater.
The newly restored version of Max Ophuls classic "Lola Montes"… (Rialto Pictures )

Max Ophuls' 1955 "Lola Montes" was a box office flop, butchered by its producers, then restored as much as possible by producer Pierre Braunberger in 1968. And, now, 40 years later, his daughter Laurence has overseen a superb state-of-the-art restoration. Ophuls' last film and first in color is the most baroque of his sumptuous period pictures -- and to many critics, his greatest.

It is framed by a fictional device, an elaborate circus, in which a dying Lola (Martine Carol) participates in a series of tableaux dramatizing her scandalous career as an internationally popular Spanish dancer with a notorious private life. Montez was actually born Eliza Gilbert in 1821 in Ireland, the daughter of a British soldier who died of cholera in India, leaving his daughter at the mercy of her cold, calculating mother. Headstrong and disillusioned, Eliza, admiring the freedom and passion of Spanish dances, takes to the stage as Lola Montez.

If Lola was known more for her affairs than her dancing ability, Carol was known more for her glamour than her acting talent. The producers thrust Carol on Ophuls, but he turns Carol's clear striving to do her best into an expression of Lola's determination to live life as she pleases while underneath actually longing for love and security. With typical boldness, she lands it at last as the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (a dashing Anton Walbrook), but her notoriety threatens a revolution.

As the circus ringmaster, Peter Ustinov is the ultimate showman, stylish and ruthless, literally cracking a whip, wresting the last centime out of the fading Lola, but his remark that "she gave her body but kept her soul" reverberates through the film. By the end, she's attained the transcendent spiritual dignity of Mizoguchi's Oharu.

The film doesn't deal with Lola's American adventures, which included a two-year stay in a Grass Valley cottage, where she dreamed of being crowned queen of California but more constructively guided the young Lotta Crabtree into becoming one of the country's most beloved entertainers. Lola turned to religion and died poor in New York at the age of 42 -- Martine Carol herself died at 46.

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"Lola Montes." MPAA rating: Unrated. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. At the Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-5581; the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

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