My experience with Lola Montes director Max Ophuls was zero prior to my first screening of Criterion's new Blu-ray edition of his final directorial feature. As a result, while watching the special features and listening to the fascinating audio commentary included, I realized the work of Ophuls cannot be judged by watching one film. It's also my impression he's a director whose signature will be found on most all of his films, leading me to believe the more of his films I see, the more I will appreciate what I am watching. While I enjoyed Lola Montes, and noticed plenty of directorial control as well as an obvious auteur style, I still felt I was missing something.
In September of 2008, Criterion released The Earrings of Madame de..., La ronde and Le plaisir on DVD, three of Ophuls most recognized films with The Earrings of Madame de... probably being his most loved. Had I seen those three, I am certain my approach to this disc would have been much different.
Lola Monte tells the story of the Irish-born, Spanish courtesan as played by French actress Martine Carol with Peter Ustinov playing the role of the narrative ringmaster as the story of her life is told through flashback using her as a performer in a circus to jump through the years. Her ambition to rise in social ranks and her affairs with the likes of Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, are two prominent examples of what is covered.
Lola Montes was shot in Cinemascope and is presented here in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio, which causes portions of the right and left side of the screen to seemingly "bubble" as the camera pans. This is not a surprise as the only way to avoid this would be to display it in a SmileBox format such as what Warner Home Video did in offering both standard and SmileBox versions with their release of How the West was Won. It's not much of a distraction, but it's noticeable.
On top of being forced to shoot in CinemaScope, Ophuls was also forced to use 4-track magnetic stereo for the feature, an early method to create stereo sound exclusive to Cinemascope films. Criterion has taken that track and remastered it into an impressive 3.0 DTS-HD Master Audio.
The sound and visuals of this film are all elevated with Criterion's high-definition presentation and seeing how this was my first time with the film I took a look at the reliable DVD Beaver screenshots for comparison and the Criterion captures are vastly superior.
The story behind the path Lola Montes took from its 1955 premiere to this Criterion Blu-ray release is interesting to say the least. Shot in three separate languages (French, German and English), the film was a commercial failure. It was then recut without Ophuls's permission and the chronology of it all was changed completely (which I assume to mean the idea of flashbacks was removed and the circus was viewed as a whole at the end of the film -- a terrible idea if that's the case). In 2008, the original presentation was restored based on Ophuls original cut and that is what we have here.
The special features included delve into the director Ophuls was, the troubles this film faced as well as a general overview of Ophuls as an auteur. The most recent feature of the bunch is a 33-minute short film from Ophuls's son, Marcel, called Max by Marcel which includes archived interviews with several from the cast and crew members as well as an old video of Ophuls himself rummaging in his attic for a misplaced screenplay. Marcel also adds a personal touch with his stories as an assistant director on Lola Montes, all of which proves interesting.
The included audio commentary from Ophuls scholar Susan White was recorded in 2008 and was originally included on the Region 2 release from Second Sight. It is indeed a "scholarly" look at the film and Ophuls, but it is far more entertaining (as well as informative) than most of the commentaries of its ilk, and there is no problem getting through it in one sitting.
A 56-minute installment of the French television series "Cineaste de notre temps" with a focus on the film and Ophuls is rough in its presentation due to age, but is filled with anecdotes and bits of information from the set and Ophuls's career. While it does reiterate a lot of what you'll hear in Max by Marcel and White's commentary it is something of an extended look at each story.
Finally there is a short look at Martine Carol's hair tests, a re-release trailer from Rialto Pictures and a 28-page booklet with an essay from Gary Giddins.
This is a release any fan of Ophuls has likely already pre-ordered. I can tell this is a director that would have a rabid and dedicated audience seeing how I am already queuing up the three Criterion releases I mentioned earlier at Netflix (with The Earrings of Madame de... on Instant Play) and wish Liebelei was available to view as that one sounds like a pivotal film in Ophuls's career. However, I wouldn't recommend this as an instant buy for the uninitiated. I would rather recommend you check his work out on Netflix and see if it fits your taste, primarily because I assume if it does you won't hesitate to buy them after that.