The tawdry, carnivalesque atmosphere of the traveling Mammoth Circus provides the ideal framework for Max Ophüls’s resplendent Lola Montès, serving as both a pungent deconstruction of the cult of celebrity and a demystification of an elusive woman. Revisiting scandalous episodes from her life through a series of kitschy, seemingly incongruous reenactments involving constructed stage props, facile acrobatics, tableaux vivantes, and clown routines, former dancer and tabloid personality Lola Montès (Martine Carol) alternates between past and present, reality and myth, reconstructed memory and fictionalized performance, prompted at each salacious biographical juncture by a brash and goading ringmaster (Peter Ustinov). The flashback to the mutual end of a love affair with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) illustrates a fickleness and vanity that would lead to her numerous failed relationships with distinguished men (pragmatically towing along, on each rendezvous, her own coachman and personal attendant in order to retain a method of transportation after the inevitable break-up). Her return to England following her father’s death in India, escorted by her mother (Lise Delamare) and her mother’s young lover, Lieutenant James (Ivan Desny) exposes a reckless streak, leading to an impulsive, failed marriage to the volatile James (although ironically described by the ringmaster as a happy one) in an attempt to escape her mother’s efforts to marry her off to a wealthy, much older man. Her early career as a chorus girl suggests a mediocrity for dancing that is compensated by a talent for courting attention, culminating in a scandal on the Riviera when she publicly upbraids her lover – the orchestra conductor – after discovering that he was married. A doomed affair with Bavarian king and arts patron, Ludwig I (Anton Walbrook), reveals an unexpected generosity and uncompromising, idealized romanticism. Creating an intrinsically bifurcated gaze by juxtaposing sumptuous images within a gaudy staging, Ophüls poses the question of audience complicity in cultivating the public appetite for celebrity, a moral ambiguity that is reflected in the shattering, parting shot of patrons queuing for a chance to kiss Montès’s hand between the bars of a cage – collapsing the illusion of separation between reality and spectacle.
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