Certain artifacts represent the outer limits of their form - they may or may not be the best but they're unquestionably the most. Modern art has its "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" and Monet cathedrals; the piano has Beethoven's 32d Sonata. Rock 'n' roll has "Like a Rolling Stone," architecture has Gaudi, poetry has Blake, and fiction has Nabokov. The classical cinema has "Lola Montès." Watch it first, argue with me later.
I doubt I'd be making this claim based on earlier viewings of Max Ophuls's intoxicating costume epic, butchered, faded, and transposed as it has been since it debuted to Parisian jeers in 1955. Originally 140 minutes in length, "Lola" came to America four years later in a bowdlerized and reshuffled 75-minute cut; it has been working its way back toward its true self ever since.
Now it's here, or as close as we'll ever get. The 115-minute version newly restored from the film's original elements and opening at the Coolidge Corner today returns Ophuls's wide-screen visuals and Technicolor hues to almost sinful clarity. The narrative structure is once more a deliriously wheeling series of fractals. A DVD release is imminent, but trust me: Seen on a big screen, this is a movie to get drunk on.
Sin is the film's subject, in fact, or one of many. The lady of the title was a real historical figure (1821-61), an Irish-born Spanish dancer and courtesan whose greatest art was scandal. Her many lovers included composer Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria; the latter's subjects rose in revolt against Lola's influence on their sovereign.
Ophuls isn't interested in biography, though - the movie would give a historian fits - but in what women want and what men see; in games of love, sex, and perception; in life's absurd, unknowable circus. When the film opens, Lola (Martine Carol) is at the end of the line: the featured attraction in a traveling show of trapeze artists and clowning dwarves. The Circus Master (Peter Ustinov) relates her career as a series of tableaux vivant; Lola herself is the fading jewel at center stage, taking questions from the audience and receding into her own memories, pulling us along for the ride.
The film's flashbacks erupt like hothouse orchids: here is Lola luring Liszt (Will Quadflieg) into break-up sex; here is her neglected adolescence and the soldier-lover (Ivan Desny) she stole from her mother (Lise Delamare); here are her seductions of a student (a young Oskar Werner) and an aging king (Anton Walbrook).
Yet the film constantly loops back to the metaphorical diorama of the circus, with its wheels within wheels of paying customers, circling horses, flying acrobats, and Ophuls's own whirligig camera. The techniques the director refined in earlier masterpieces like "La Ronde" and "The Earrings of Madame De. . ." reach their rococo apotheosis here: insanely fluid camera shots that never seem to end, frames crammed with mesmerizing bric-a-brac, a sense that all the world's a stage and the curtain's lowering much too fast. If Baz Luhrmann didn't mainline this film while thinking up "Moulin Rouge," I'll eat my critical hat.
The movie's not perfect; it only seems that way. The Bavarian scenes lack the sheer sad craziness of everything else, and many people find Carol to be a department store mannequin in the leading role. I couldn't agree less. Maybe she's not an actress of varied and dazzling gifts, but she knows that Lola's tragedy, as with any celebrated beauty, is that everyone desires the temptress who's not there while missing the woman who is. We want the legend, not the facts; the fantasy rather than the flesh. This understanding is what shines in the back of Lola's eyes as she disappears beneath the press of men, and it's what the Circus Master will always miss, even as he counts the receipts.
Along with one of the great final shots in all of movies, "Lola Montès" exudes a weariness that's both majestic and unbearably moving. Time is the movie's ultimate subject, and the ways we try to stop time in its tracks with love, lust, storytelling, or the sheer beauty of a woman's neck and a camera's pivot. "Life is for me a movement," Lola says, and whether she's talking about her heart or Ophuls is talking about his medium this eternally rich movie refuses to make clear.