The last film of master craftsman Max Ophüls (two years before his death) is a reverie, a cautionary tale of the course of the life of dancer/courtesan Lola Montez, who climbed socially through the world of prominent men until a dalliance with the King of Bavaria (who appointed her The Countess of Landsfeld) created such an uproar, it caused a revolution in 1848. The real Lola lived quite well, though doing it so fast ultimately cost her. She died from pnuemonia after suffering a stroke at age 40 in the United States.
Ophüls' "reel" Lola (played by Martine Carol) lives out her foreshadowed final days as a featured performer of a circus (ring-led by Peter Ustinov), a public spectacle where she is forced to re-live and metaphorically re-enact her scandalous rise and precipitous fall before an audience of French rubes, who, like the rabble they are, shout questions from the dark (and Ustinov's Circus Master smarmily answers, egging them on).
She is the star performer, but trapped—by the schedule, by the spotlight, and finally caged, as a seemingly endless line of paying customers queue up to kiss her hand, paying homage and risking little. She is a prisoner of her fame, her reputation and her life, that once represented a kind of freedom, where she felt she could challenge the limitations of polite society.
For Lola, it must seem a little like Hell, and for director Ophüls, it might have, too. A long, complicated shoot, his first in color and wide-screen (at the producers' insistence), with a star he didn't want (at the producers' insistence), his film's complicated flashback structure, shifting back and forth from the circus' smarmy presentation of incidents to Lola's memories of the events—was re-edited into an uneasy chronological order to get to "the good parts" faster (at...well, you already know), after its premiere. And that version of Lola—with one or two bits of lost footage tacked on over the years—was what the world knew of Ophüls' last film...until 2008. Restored to the structure Ophüls intended, the film wheels between Lola's life in charge and manipulating events, to her being manipulated reliving the events, like a sideshow attraction. And the presentation has an accusatory, sensationalist tone—a show-trial, literally.
It's a cunning look at fame (or infamy), of how one's actions can be sold as just about anything (the director's son in a supplemental interview says "Lola Montès is anti-advertising.")—and ironically the producers took the deception one step further, missing, or ignoring, or even sabotaging, the point.
Meanwhile, Ophüls managed to make the most of his star's lack of range, making her a stoic throughout the self-abasement. Politically, it's an odd film: ostensibly, a "Comeuppance" film where an upstart (in this case, Lola) gets her "just desserts" (if one is thinking uncharitably), suffering humiliation and entrapment at the hands of men—once powerful and influential, she's now powerless. But, that's a simplistic, even a foolish, reading. Lola still holds fascination, draws a crowd, and those lines of men at the end are paying money to kiss her hand and pay their respects. Even the Circus Master betrays his personal devotion to her. Caged she may be, but she's still "got" it.
And Ophüls might have just told the flashback story, but the tragic scenes at the circus provoke empathy for Lola, reliving her lost past, generating understanding, or as Ophüls' son says, "in a spirit of penitence and mortification, benevolence." An audience might not be so sympathetic if Lola wenched her way around the world. getting her way and getting away with it, but the circus summaries exploit and promote her past victories, while placing her in marked contrast with her accomplishments. Like the circumstances of Barry Lyndon (Ophüls was a huge influence on Kubrick), the comedown goes a long way to evoking sympathy for the unfortunate forever caught in the frame.
Critic Andrew Sarris once called Lola Montès "the greatest film ever made." One can see why.