When Lola Montes was originally released in 1955, it was considered by most to be (and I'm using the popular nomenclature of the day) a hot mess. It was big, brash, sexy, and a complete flop at the box office. A prime example of a film that has been significantly reevaluated since its release, Lola Montes may have its fair share of flaws, but it also has ambition and style.
Told non-chronologically in a way that may have felt jarring to 1950s audiences, the film begins with Lola hitting rock bottom. The once world-famous courtesan, mistress to kings and artistic elites, has now been reduced to performing as part of a tawdry, New Orleans circus. Her sexual notoriety has earned her a place among the other curiosities of the freak show, which is so profoundly sad and degrading that the audience is immediately aware that this is a fallen woman with nowhere else to go.
The circus atmosphere provides an apt metaphor for both her fantastic, larger than life exploits as well as her dramatic tumble from grace, and her position at the end of the film as a mere object that men pay a dollar to kiss through the bars of a cage reflect her life spent as a trophy for powerful men.
Through flashbacks, we see how Lola came to be the famed lover whose trysts were internationally known. The common thread is a desire for freedom and to live life on her own terms, as shown through her impulsive elopement to avoid being betrothed to a much older man, then her sudden estrangement from that husband (who, to be fair, seemed like a grade A dick) to pursue a career as a dancer. But no matter how much she strives for independence, her fate seems inextricably tied to the fortunes of the men in her life.
Martine Carol stars as the eponymous Lola, and while she acquits herself admirably during the circus scenes where she plays a subdued shadow of her former glory, the flashbacks prove less charming. Despite Lola Montes being the star of the piece and a towering figure of 18th-century society, she isn't written as such. We're told rather than show what an intelligent, glorious woman Lola is, and Carol quite simply doesn't have the natural charm or strength as an actress to overcome the deficiencies of the script and breath life into her character.
What's worse, there aren't any other memorable characters in the film. Peter Ustinov does well as the ringleader of the circus, but his role is little more than a narrator, and Anton Walbrook is strong as the ill-fated King Ludwig I of Bavaria, but he is in such a small portion of the film. Lola Montes is meant to revolve around the performance of its leading lady, and Carol isn't quite up to the task. When you make a film like this with such laser focus on a single character, the actor has to be practically faultless, otherwise the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.
While the style and vibrancy of the ambitious set pieces in the circus sequences go a long way in redeeming the film from some of its weaker elements, but they can't rescue it completely, and what remains is a technically ambitious but disjointed film that adds up to significantly less than the sum of its parts.