Lola Montes is one of those films that may have a greater significance for criticism than it does for the art of cinema itself. Butchered in its initial theatrical release, its restoration was greeted with accolades in the late 1960s. Andrew Sarris, the unofficial spokesman for auteurism in the United States, declared the restored version the greatest film ever made. There are probably still plenty who, if not ready to go that far, would essentially agree that the film is an unsurpassed masterpiece.
Without denying director Max Ophuls’s skill or originality, others questioned whether such a cheap story could be redeemed by his masterful style. Were the film’s sumptuous, baroque surfaces enough compensation for the tawdry content and the wooden performance by the film’s star (Martine Carol)? In short, the critical reaction to Lola Montes provides a condensed example of the tug of war between those who insist film is primarily a visual medium to be judged in those terms, and more literary definitions of quality.
This struggle continues, even though the terms of the debate are essentially false. This either/or distinction makes visual style and thematic seriousness oppositional. You need look no further than some of Ophuls’s other films to recognize that formal elegance and engrossing content are not antithetical. Indeed, as just one example, La Ronde, his adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen, is as thematically innovative and formally sophisticated as any film ever made.
As for Lola Montes, both sides are right within their self-imposed limits. I enjoy the film repeatedly, despite its literary limitations and Carol’s inflexible performance. (Besides, she’s not all that awful.) I enjoy it for its excess, its brilliance, its unsurpassed sophistication in the use of lighting, costume and decor. The script, while hardly Shakespearean, provides moments of pleasantly diverting wit. The movie is most definitely not profound, but it is reliably entertaining.
Unfortunately, while Lola Montes makes a great dessert, it’s a poor main course in which the chef’s exertions give the impression it will provide more sustenance than it does. For all the film’s aerated richness, there is precious little about Montes’s era, virtually nothing about her character nor even much indication of why she was famous. The key episode is her love affair with King Ludwig I of Bavaria. To the extent the film deals with politics, it implies that Ludwig was overthrown largely because of this affair, a remarkably shallow reduction of historical complexity to banalities.
Which leads to the inevitable, unanswerable question of whether or not the film should deal with weightier matters? If critics continue to argue about the relative importance of literary versus visual expression, their argument may have more to do with the struggle to determine whose opinion will have the most impact than it does about individual art works. As esoteric as such arguments may seem, they expose an important reality: critics’ opinions shape ours. And our responses ultimately determine what films get made.