Old School Reviews  


Grade: BMoulin Rouge (1952)

Director: John Huston

Stars: Josť Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor

Release Company: MGM/UA

MPAA Rating: NR

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John Huston: Moulin Rouge


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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec has become synonymous with Montmartre—at least the Montmartre around the turn of the 20th century when it was at its apex. Settling into the center of Paris' bohemian cabaret district, Toulouse-Lautrec frequented its circuses, dance halls, nightclubs, and brothels and used them as subject matter. Unlike other artists, whose paintings of the Parisian district come across like objective portraits, Toulouse-Lautrec's scenes are far more intimate; for good reason was he called the "soul of Montmartre."

Embracing Montmartre's earthy lifestyle, he was a regular participant. Sitting at a nightclub table, Toulouse-Lautrec would drink and sketch into the wee hours, later transforming his sketches into brightly colored paintings that captured the spirit of his beloved hilltop neighborhood and its regular patrons. His subjects all became more famous and remain historical figures because of Toulouse-Lautrec's work: Louise Weber (La Goulue), Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and Aristide Bruant.

Most notable are his lithographs of the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets that were plastered all over Paris; ironically, these most famous images doomed his beloved haunts by attracting greater numbers of curiosity seekers and customers. The Moulin Rouge remains today at Montmartre's naughty edges, primarily servicing clientele that pour out of huge tour buses for a sanitized package show that is only a kitschy shadow of Toulouse-Lautrec's universe. As the owner of the famous night club relates to the artist:
Too big, thanks to your poster. Oh, I know I'm making millions, but I liked the Moulin Rouge as she was, lighthearted and hot-blooded, a little strumpet who thought only of tonight. Now she is grown up and knowns better. She has money in her stocking, wears corsets, and never drinks a drop too much. Worst of all, she never sees her old friends anymore. She has gone into society. Last night she entertained a cabinet minister and his wife and daughter. It's disgusting.

Likewise, John Huston's 1952 rendition of Moulin Rouge only lightly touches Montmartre's edgier lifestyle, but credibly renders a serviceable biopic of its prototypical artist.

Following his Oscar win for Cyrano de Bergerac, José Ferrer is double cast as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and as the artist's father, Le Compte de Toulouse-Lautrec; of course, the younger man gets most of the screen time. Huston shoots Ferrer's upper torso as much as possible—not too difficult to fathom due to his penchant for sitting in clubs drinking vodka and an occasional absinthe—but Huston remarkably shows Toulouse-Lautrec deformed body without using modern CGI technology (instead using camera angles, makeup, costume, concealed pits and platforms and short body doubles). For the uninitiated, that first glance at Lautrec's short legs could be a bit of a shock, as Huston builds up the suspence with initial hints about his "ugliness" and "shortness" before putting them in a frame.

This part is historically accurate, since Toulouse-Lautrec did injure both of his legs separately at age 12 and two years later, and the legs never fully mended nor grew. Thus, his upper torso grew normally while his lower half remained stunted the rest of his life. He stood a mere 4 ½ feet, and the film competently demonstrates how this deformity affected his psyche and changed the entire course of his life. Forced into seclusion, he becomes engrossed in art and into a world of fellow misfits—far away from his rich, aristocratic upbringing.

Ferrer keeps his emotions tight to the vest, continually harping on how no woman could ever possibly love him, so he attempts to feign stoicism as a protective condom. To no avail as he does fall for a woman of the streets early on, but the relationship is doomed for mutual frustration. Ferrer plays the artist with so much sullen fatalism, that it's difficult to imagine that he accurately reflects the same artist that painted the Montmartre cabaret crowd with such vibrant colors and flair.

A few historical references do survive Huston's pen and cutting room floor, and especially memorable are early excursions to the brightly colored Moulin Rouge for lively can-can sequences with the irrepressible La Goulue. Also sharing significant screen time is Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor (as Jane Avril), who embarrassingly lip synchs songs without any regard to their English equivalents—Huston must have decided that camera intimacy trumped a more distant view to hide her ineptness in this area. She does come across as the intended prima donna, however, and she adds the touch of gaiety that Ferrer lacks.

One historical disappointment is the missing singer/commedian Aristide Bruant, whose visage ranks among the most memorable of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters—the guy dressed in black with the red scarf. Huston also re-arranges the years to inaccurately show La Goulue as a forgotten queen from yesteryear (about 26 years too soon) and skips over the artist's sanatorium stint to get to his death bed. But what Huston does create interest in the great artist with his cursory outline of Toulouse-Lautrec's life, by capturing some of the Moulin Rouge's turn of the century sparkle, and most notably sprinkling bountiful samples of Toulouse-Lautrec's artwork throughout the film. Moulin Rouge certainly doesn't stand with John Huston's best work, yet it's a watchable film that suitably introduces the "soul of Montmartre" and provokes discussion about the creative process.

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