Lola Montes and Bright Star Bring the 19th Century to Vibrant Life

Director Max Ophüls’ 1955 mutilated masterpiece Lola Montes re-emerges lavishly restored on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray at a serendipitous time. While cocaine, sex tapes, and reality shows were unknown in 19th-century Europe, the real-life Lola Montez was the great-great-grandmother of today’s tabloid queens, only modestly talented but famous for her lovers and her impunities. The Lindsay Lohans and Heidi Montags of the world would be truly fortunate to be remembered decades in the future via something like Ophüls’ radiant vision.

Lola Montes opens in a seedy circus as the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) introduces the evening’s entertainment: the life story of the notorious titular femme fatale, as performed by herself (the lush Martine Carol). Ophüls’ restless camera circles the ring, dodging jugglers and stagehands, while Ustinov serves as emcee to her disgrace, soliciting two bits to ask the infamous Lola anything: Where did you dance naked? What are your measurements? Where are your children? Shame simmers on Carol’s face amid the ghastly festivity.

Ophüls then begins cutting between the ring and flashbacks of her life, a ground-breaking tactic that inspired much chicken-hearted studio butchery after the film’s initial release. Lola’s path is set early on when she makes a desperate bid to escape an arranged marriage by stealing her mother’s dashing lover (Ivan Desny), marrying him, then leaving him when he turns out to be a drunk. Rather than following convention, she takes up with a man for her own reasons and desires and then puts him down on her own terms, including affairs with composer/pianist Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). In Ophüls’ rendition, Montes is a proto-feminist, ahead of her time for 1955, much less the mid-1800s.

While Lola is still riding high, she has another fateful encounter with a man: Ustinov’s circus master. He offers her a contract as a traveling attraction—she’ll be big in America—knowing long before she does that that’s what she will someday be: a salacious footnote. She rejects his offer, but perhaps they both know that she’ll be back.

Ophüls’ last film, Lola was his first in widescreen and color, and the director made the absolute most of them—his signature fluid camera finally has room to truly roam and the sumptuous Technicolor heightens the melodrama. But Lola delivers a punch that mere spectacle rarely invokes on its own without an adroit auteur in charge. At a number of points, the typical romantic musical score stops dead, leaving only silence to reveal the root loneliness of Lola and her men. When her real taskmaster at the circus is revealed to be a large, grim man in clown make-up, counting money, you tremble for her. Indeed, in the movie’s legendary final shot, Ophüls makes it clear that while Lola brought herself to her own fate, those of us who enjoy watching a good rise and fall are never less than complicit.

Bright Star (Sony DVD) is a costume drama that begins with a costume: a close-up of a needle pulling a thread through cloth in the nimble fingers of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Having been brought up as a proper young early 19th-century Englishwoman, Fanny has been schooled primarily in the domestic arts, but at sewing she’s truly gifted, and she knows it. The clothes she makes for herself are artful, bold, ground-breaking for the bucolic countryside, and they are also the only way she can distinguish and express herself in highly ordered and well-behaved British society. This understatedly brilliant 2009 film from writer/director Jane Campion (An Angel at My Table, The Piano) tells the story of the star-crossed relationship between Fanny and John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the great Romantic writer, but it is not simply an account of a literary luminary and the woman he loved. It’s her story more than his.

They are an unlikely couple, Fanny and Keats. He is a wispy, threadbare poet, dependent on his friend and collaborator Charles Brown (a brilliant Paul Schneider) for a roof and a place to work. She is, well, bigger than he is for starters, and a fashion plate with little knowledge of poetry, which makes her a target of Brown’s scorn and mockery. He has no money to marry and must divide his time between writing with Brown and nursing his tubercular brother; despite her own creativity and skill, she has no way forward in life but to marry, and she comes to wish to marry no one else but Keats, despite their dim prospects as a couple. Just as their love flourishes and the obstacles in their path start to seem puny in comparison, he falls ill himself.

Lola Montes exemplifies the mannered perfection of classic mid-century studio filmmaking, even as it transcends it. Bright Star, on the other hand, brings unruly life to its period depiction. While Fanny sports bespoke frocks and elaborate hats, she wears them walking through muddy yards and grimy London side streets; Campion captures a sense of movement in the frame that breaks up that stultifying drawing room vibe. More importantly she finds and exposes the ordinary passions and frustrations behind the legendary names in the literary histories. Keats’ name will remain immortal as long as people speak English, but Campion makes a convincing case that Brawne’s life is worth remembering, too.

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