Video Event of the Week: Might we be talking, perhaps, about Lionsgate's DVD of The September Issue, the entertaining backstage documentary on Vogue editor Anna Wintour directed by R. J. Cutler? Could Acorn Media's box of the Brit detective series Midsomer Murders: Set 14 conceivably get the nod? Or against all the odds is there even the slightest chance that Miramax's disc of Everybody's Fine, the sentimental weepie starring Robert de Niro, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell, might actually be The One?
All worthy, except for that last (which is really totally icky), but for my shekels it has to be the Criterion Collection's refurbished version of Max Ophuls' final masterpiece, the 1955 stunner Lola Montès.
It is with some embarassment that I admit I had not previously seen LM (hey -- don't let it get around, okay?) and to be honest I'm still digesting it, as it were. I do know, of course, that the great Andrew Sarris, who saw a butchered version in 1963, famously said "Lola Montès is, in my unhumble opinion, the greatest film of all time." But of course Sarris has said a lot of stuff like that over the years, including "Anyone who loves cinema must be moved by the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll; " I think he does it just to wind people up.
In any case, as mentioned, LM was Ophuls' last film and his most spectacular -- his first in color, plus a quite remarkable use of Cinemascope and early Surround Sound. It was, in other words, an attempt at a big commercial roadshow blockbuster of the type the American studios were trying to lure TV audiences with at the time. It's a period costume piece, obviously; the titular Lola (played by the gorgeous but somewhat stolid Martine Carol) was a real life courtesan, actress/dancer and publicity hound who reinvented herself from humble origins and went on to boink King Ludwig I of Bavaria and several other historical notables; think a 19th century Madonna.
LM was a famous flop when originally released, and with hindsight it's hard to figure why, although the film's non-sequential flashback structure apparently rubbed folks the wrong way, and Carol (although she has her admirers, myself included) may not have been ideal casting. In any case, the film was taken out of Ophuls' hands almost immediately, cut for time and re-edited chronologically, and most of the prints until fairly recently were in poor repair. Criterion's version is transferred from a 2008 theatrical restoration, and it's not just totally faithful to Ophuls' original vision -- it's damned breathtaking.
Here's the official re-release trailer to give you an idea of the film's myriad pleasures.
Like I said, in hindsight, it's hard to figure out why the thing flopped in '55. Granted, it's rather languidly paced by contemporary standards, but the flashback stuff doesn't seem the slightest bit problematic, and as you can see it's an absolute feast for the eyes; there's nary a frame of it that isn't just drop dead gorgeous to behold. It's also a wonderful romantic melodrama of the kind they really don't make any more, AND a brilliant, thoroughly contemporary (and often very funny) meditation on fame and celebrity culture: Lola herself is a character who will be instantly recognizable to anybody who's watched certain music videos or reality TV shows in the last couple of years.
Have I mentioned Ophuls' masterly widescreen compositions?
Criterion's DVD package (I haven't seen the Blu-ray, but I'm assured that it's more than incrementally better looking) comes with a second disc of bonuses, including a 1965 French TV documentary on Ophuls, screen test footage of Carol trying out various hairstyles for the film (although she was usually typecast as a blonde temptress, she's a brunette here), and a new making-of doc directed by Ophuls' son Marcel. There's also a characteristically perceptive booklet essay by critic Gary Giddins, who argues for the film as a sort of six movement visual symphony.
Okay, with that out of the way, and because things will doubtless be a little quiet around here for a couple of days, here's a hopefully fun and relevant little project to divert us all:
French Film Actress Who Best Exemplifies the Whole "Vive le Difference!" Thing!!!
And my totally top of my head Top Five is:
5. Simone Simon in The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941)
Yup, I'd totally sell my soul for her, no question. Honorable mention: Simone Simon in Cat People.
4. Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990)
A crappy movie -- the end of French cinema as we knew it, IMHO -- but Parillaud is both iconic and real easy on the eyes, n'est-ce pas?
3. Juliette Greco in Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958)
The existential Beatnik babe of my dreams, now and forever.
2. Brigitte Auber in To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
A tomboy cutie, and she actually holds her own against Grace Kelly in the scene above.
And the numero uno Frenchie fatale has got to be, seriously it isn't even a contest, the incomparable...
1. Arletty in Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)
The quintessential knowing and mysterious older woman (she was 47 when this was shot) and thus about about as French as it gets. And don't even get me started on how great everything else about this film is.
Alrighty then -- what would your choices be?