Two French Classics: Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937)

My new FilmStruck subscription (thank you, children) is giving me access to many older films that help fill in my cinematic gaps. Recently, I saw two French classics that couldn’t be more different from one another—Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937).

Lola Montès is a huge Technicolor epic that was hailed, if only temporarily, by legendary writer and critic (and my professor at Columbia) Andrews Sarris as the greatest film ever made. To quote Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game), “tout le monde a ses raisons” (“everyone has his reasons”). Sarris was in love with the moving camera of Max Ophuls, Lola Montès’ director, and the sweep and mood of the piece. Sarris backed off from that claim not long after, but only to substitute another Ophuls masterwork, The Earrings of Madame de….

Lola Montès is ambitious in scope and seems to borrow its then-confusing flashback narrative style from 1941’s Citizen Kane, and can be seen as a forerunner of the kind of monetizing of one’s foibles and living in an embarrassingly public way that we find surrounding us today. The film is based upon the real exploits, trials and scandals of a woman who is a kind of 19-century combination of Forrest Gump and scandalous courtesan. Filmed in widescreen with high production values and in luscious Technicolor, the film is a feast for the eyes. What either works marvelously for the viewer or what alienates the viewer is one of two things.

First, the central conceit of the film narratively is that Lola’s life, and perhaps all our lives, is a circus act, with little reality and a great deal of cynical show. The circus framework can be seen to continually pull us out of the story of Lola’s life, and/or to reduce to inanity the exciting tale of a half-broken woman who exploits and is exploited by men. Perhaps the device was both too jarring and too ahead of its time.

The other problem is one that doesn’t change over time. It’s the rather dull and lifeless performance of Martine Carol, the early-50’s sexpot actress chosen to play the central character. While nearly all agree that her acting skills are limited, to be kind, some think the vacuity of her performance works for the film. It does so by presenting a rather dull figure in bright colors and fine costumes, in a context of dramatic historical events with some famous figures (Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to name two), which sets the title figure up to be both celebrated and denigrated in equal amounts, with perhaps a greater emphasis on the swirl about her than on Lola herself.

This argument is similar to those that look at Barry Lyndon and don’t find fault with Ryan O’Neal, but excuse the performance because O’Neal pretty much was a modern-day version of Lyndon. With a weak central performance, the viewer’s attention is put on the stunning look of the film, the camera movement, the costumes, and the quality of the performances around O’Neal. This is the case with Lola Montès, both in terms of acting talent and reputation. Apparently, Carol was a second-rate actress who had a similar reputation to that of her character, which might have brought something to a contemporaneous viewer, but which doesn’t resonate today. And when one is surrounded by Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, and Oscar Werner, the contrast can be occasionally painful.

Yes, it’s Ophuls’ last film, and a masterpiece of imagery. But perhaps its most telling attribute will prove over time to be its then-shocking combination of narrative structure and attitude—not just the European coolness toward sexual mores, but the cynical and dismissive perspective toward a human life, even one billed—and hyped–as fascinating and scandalous. The reduction of a life, even one colored by important events and people, to a sumptuous but silly circus act was not of its time, and might even be considered controversial today.

The other film I saw was Pépé le Moko,a wonderful film that made its star Jean Gabin internationally famous. It’s a great performance with colors and shadings that is the highlight of the film. Gabin can perhaps be compared for Americans to Clark Gable in that they were both “salt of the earth” actors, but Gabin’s talent far outweighs Gable’s, and he is inescapably French, which may well, along with a difficult personality, have limited his chances at a major career outside his birth country.

The film was remade the next year in English as Algiers, and much of the American film is nearly shot-for-shot the same. That film starred a smoother and more Continental Charles Boyer, who didn’t have a machismo or power of Gabin. It also served as a platform for presenting Hedy Lamarr to the public, and her beauty and the film’s insistence on featuring that beauty made for quite a different film, as did Hollywood’s habit of smoothing out rough edges and glamorizing its sets and characters. Pépé le Moko moves much more quickly, both within scenes and from scene to scene, and features some stunning moving camerawork. In some ways it’s more like Gabin himself—rougher, faster, and more animalistic.

To answer the question many in my generation might have, yes, Pepé le Pew was based on this character, though specifically the more romantic Boyer version.

To see the two films back to back made for some obvious comparisons. Lola is definitely the better film but has a weak spot in the center. Pépé le Moko had a strong central performance, and solid work around Gabin. One film is grand and epic in scope, is set against thrilling historical events and people. and addresses the human condition. The other is a tight little thriller that author Graham Greene rightly said “rais[ed] the thriller to a poetic level,” creating a star overnight in Gabin. If you have to choose, go with the older Gabin film and see why he has a unique place in French film.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 48+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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