Restored ‘Lola Montes' Is Redeemed by Its Garish Spectacle

Martine Carol is the main character in
Martine Carol is the main character in "Lola Montes," which has been restored with about four minutes of footage not seen since 1955. (Rialto Pictures)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 21, 2008

Place all of cinema's truly awful performers end to end, and they would stretch from here to the third moon of Pluto. (Pluto, by the way, is adorable, and a better actor than, say, Keanu Reeves.) Sometimes, however, badness is goodness. And without "bad" performances, the following three movies wouldn't have been as good as they are:

· "Cabaret": In her Oscar-winning performance as the talent-free Sally Bowles, Liza Minnelli was playing someone whom even Bowles's creator, Christopher Isherwood, described as "one of those individuals whom respectable society shuns in horror." Minnelli seems unaware of her over-the-top-itude, which really makes the movie.

· "Vertigo": Was Kim Novak an inept actress? Or was it her character who was the inept actress -- and nevertheless seduces Jimmy Stewart? And is Novak therefore a genius? Only Alfred Hitchcock knows . . .

· "Lola Montes": Ah, the best of the bad. Martine Carol was one of the most beautiful women in French film when she made Max Ophüls's 1955 masterpiece. Her casting wasn't quite the same as what Billy Wilder had done in "Sunset Boulevard" a few years earlier (casting a washed-up silent-film star to play a washed-up silent film star). But the shallowness of Carol's stardom and celebrity, and the candy-colored artifice of the cinema around her, all fed into Ophüls's process -- a process which, by the way, left its original audiences perplexed. Angry. And insulted, although they might not quite have been aware of that.

Max Ophüls was certainly insulted: "Lola Montes," the last film by the great German director, is one of the great "lost" films of cinema, ranking with "Greed," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Metropolis" as a victim of studio butchery. Despite the valiant efforts of restorers and archivists, these films will probably never be seen in exactly the way their directors intended.

Still, the reissued "Lola Montes" that opens today is as close as a restoration can come to recapturing the truth.

"Until now," said Bruce Goldstein of Rialto Pictures, the film's distributor, " 'Lola' has only been available in the most washed-out, dreary copies imaginable. Which was kind of like watching 'Lawrence of Arabia' on your cellphone."

Goldstein added that the restoration executed by the Cinémathèque Française reemphasizes the spectacular color design that was such a major part of Ophüls's conception -- "what we call in the business 'eye-popping.' This one really is."

The restoration also returns about four minutes of footage, missing since audiences first walked out on "Lola."

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