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MOVIE REVIEW : Atypical Look at Lola Montes’ Life of Debauchery

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By all accounts, Lola Montes was some piece of work. The 19th-Century beauty was a pioneer of dangerous liaisons, taking on Franz Liszt and Bavaria’s King Louis I as just two of her many lovers. When not looking for romantic scandal, Montes danced ballet on Europe’s greatest stages.

Her legend impressed Max Ophuls, the French director of “La Ronde” (1950) and “Madame de . . . " (1953). Ophuls envisioned Montes as a sexual firebrand, a woman who described her generation by refusing to become part of its conventions. In his “Lola Montes,” which screens at UC Irvine tonight, he tried to dramatize her atypical life in atypically cinematic ways.

It’s an unorthodox and baroque film that, while dying at the box office when it premiered in 1955, inspired a range of critical opinion. Critic and film historian Andrew Sarris was fascinated by its lushness, describing “Lola Montes” as the greatest movie ever made, a wild overstatement. At the other extreme, another critic wrote that it had all the virtuosity of “hauling a corpse around a circus ring.”

There’s no doubt that “Lola Montes” can be unwieldly, a movie so strictly constructed and measured in its passion that the drama of Montes’ life is reduced to a series of tableaux vivants . But Ophuls did give everything a veneer of visual boldness that borders on the surreal; the garish Cinemascope colors and curious background characters are an eyeful.

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Fellini, for one, was taken by the film’s looks and tragic tone--with its reliance on carnival imagery and a romanticism defying tradition, “Lola Montes” influenced both “La Strada” and “8 1/2.”

The movie is done in flashbacks. Montes (Martine Carol in a frustratingly oblique performance) is the centerpiece of the gaudy Mammoth Circus lorded over by Peter Ustinov’s sleazy ringmaster. Her life is paraded before the audience as the ringmaster, a born panderer, beseeches everyone to “ask the most indiscreet questions.” She sells kisses for a quarter.

When the crowd’s not hounding her, significant moments of her life are acted out in artless ways. While the circus performs these cheap and unsentimental skits, she thinks back. These recollections are both public confessions and a defense of her unconventional style.

They’re also the film’s least-involving passages. Instead of an elegiac scope, they seem small-framed and almost without emotion. You can’t wait to get back to the circus, where her life is harsher but far more vivid. Ophuls’ camera swirls around, catching all the action and coarse pageantry, and the effect is invigorating.

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* Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montes” will screen tonight at 7 and 9 at the UC Irvine Student Center’s Crystal Cove Auditorium as part of the UCI Film Society’s Alternate Realities series. Tickets: $2 and $4. Information: (714) 856-6379.


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