Lola Montès opens in the main event of a 19th century big ring circus. The orchestra warms up with an undulating drum roll as dozens of costumed extras hurriedly prepare a gilded stage. In the background, behind massive dusty curtains the title character readies herself in a makeshift dressing room before being carried out to the ring. Atop her shining platform, Lola is quite a spectacle, wrapped in layers of sparkling tulle and a glowing peineta in her hair. Over the action, a boisterous ringmaster launches into a narrative detailing the salacious details of Lola’s past, counting her lovers as the audiences shouts questions at her. “How many children does Lola have?” they ask, “what does her mother think of her?”
Quietly she whispers to herself “I’m going to be alright” and at this point, we see that her strikingly beautiful face looks both hopeless and sickly.
The show goes on, with audience members shouting and the ringmaster egging them on, as Lola fades into a flashback. Suddenly, she’s in a stately coach traversing the Roman hillside with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. From this vantage point, the viewer sees what was once a passionate affair is about to sour. By this time in her life Lola has seen her fair share of (failed) romance, and while they travel in Liszt’s coach, Lola’s personal carriage follows behind— just in case a quiet escape is necessary. They part ways, the flashback ends and we find Lola back in her present state as the headliner of an exploitative circus sideshow.
Directed by Max Ophüls, the film represents a somewhat fictionalized re-telling of the real-life Lola Montez, infamous courtesan and Spanish dancer. Montez was a legendarily magnetic woman, as evidenced by her references throughout contemporary pop culture-from the song Whatever Lola Wants to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.
Though the subject matter may seem a bit risque for the time, it was actually the use of flashback in the film that lead to its poor reception with viewers when it was released in Paris in 1955. Audiences couldn’t seem to adapt to the format and rejected the film at the box office. It was subsequently cut and re-released (despite protests) with a more chronological format. By 1968, elements of the original film were restored and later in 2008 a version closest to the original was released, which is the version you’ll see at the Winter Edition.
Visually stunning, emotional and highly subversive, Lola Montès shines a light on the love/hate obsession with celebrity and the notion of empowered female sexuality.
All films in the Milwaukee Film Winter Edition Film Festival will screen at the Marcus North Shore Cinema, located at 11700 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon. For showtimes, click here.