I always have enjoyed films about Paris, especially the Paris of the past. A lot has happened in Paris; many events have unfolded there and many remarkable people, saints, kings, queens, soldiers, artists, writers, have lived in the ancient city on the Seine. Among the artists who made names for themselves in Paris are those whose lives were not above reproach, such as the tormented Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The scion of an old family of Languedoc, he was overwhelmed by alcohol and a bohemian lifestyle, just as his star was reaching its zenith. Before his death, he captured for posterity scenes of the Paris of the nineteenth century, unveiling the dark side of the brilliant, shining city, with all its tawdriness as well as its glamour and joie de vivre.
The John Huston 1952 film Moulin Rouge, starring José Ferrer, brings the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec to life. As one reviewer says:
Hollywood biographies tended to be highly suspect, as writers frequently invent facts for the sake of drama, sanitizing the lives of everyone from politicians to scientists. There have been quite a few bios of composers, which were often pure fantasy, but few about painters. The Moon and Sixpence comes to mind. Huston wisely makes Moulin Rouge about the wild times in the Montmartre as much as it is about his painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Better yet, the film touches upon the artist's career but is not a series of triumphs. Henri suffers as his work becomes more widely known, and the film ends in a weird mix of bittersweet failure. Here the critics should have found the "Huston thread," for Moulin Rouge ends as many of the director's pictures do, with the hero's hopes foiled but his spirit unbroken.
Just looking at Moulin Rouge is reason enough to make special plans to see it. Oswald Morris' cinematography is overpowering. It's perhaps not as intoxicated with its own effects as Jack Cardiff's sometime is, but the images dazzle just the same. This is the first film where Huston used his weight to push some progressive ideas through Technicolor London. Moulin Rouge looks to have been shot with heavy diffusion and special lighting in the dance scenes to emulate Toulouse-Lautrec's canvasses. The experiment by and large is successful - the film has a unique "painterly" look that connects the artist to the audience in the same way as last year's Girl With a Pearl Earring. Huston's movie compares favorably with the more highly regarded Vincente Minnelli Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life, with its strained theatrics and overplaying by Kirk Douglas.
In a way Moulin Rouge is first a vehicle for José Ferrer, the kind of elitist toast-of-the-town actor that wide audiences tend to abandon after a while. He charmed everyone in Cyrano de Bergerac but later on had a hard time as a lead and eventually became sort of a permanent special guest star. This is his celebrated 'stunt' role, the one where the camera is carefully placed to give him the illusion of having tiny legs. The illusion isn't that impressive any more, and we accept Henri mainly because of Ferrer's acting. Ferrer is witty, droll, haughty and remote, all the while conveying a need for other people and for love. It's fine work and has more subtlety than one might think. Here's a fellow who allows one woman to abuse him and then callously rejects another to protect his feelings. Ferrer makes him into a tragic case with a massive talent. Henri never loses faith in his art. He is allowed the sweet satisfaction of hearing his father -- a remote man who earlier called his work pornographic -- read aloud the telegram that says his work is to hang in the Louvre. Ferrer plays the father as well; we're so distracted by the tricks to make Lautrec fils seem a cripple that we never notice the methods used to put Lautrec pere in the same frame with him.
Moulin Rouge is among the better films about infamous artists, and I agree wholeheartedly with the following assessment:
This is the movie that started me on a life-long love affair with Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and once again, it was John Huston who ignited the affair, just as he had with Sam Spade and "The Maltese Falcon" on his very first assignment as a young director. "Moulin Rouge" was a nominee the year that Cecil B. De Mille's "The Greatest Show On Earth" won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1952, even though Huston's recreation of the Paris art scene of the 1890's is a far superior film. Jose Ferrer was also nominated for the physically painful role of the aristocratic Toulouse-Lautrec, who captured the gaiety of Montmartre night life, while moving through life with a sad, resigned dignity. Huston got a wonderful performance out of Colette Marchand, playing Marie Charlet, an actual young model who tormented Toulouse-Lautrec, more out of personal desperation than any real malice. However, Toulouse-Lautrec's friendship with Myriamme Hayem (Suzanne Flon) seems to owe more to Pierre la Mure's novel than it does to reality. Certainly, some of the other colorful characters here played far more authentic roles in the artist's life. There really was a La Goulue (Katherine Kath), of course: Her real name was Louise Weber (1870-1929) and Toulouse-Lautrec's posters of the dancer will long outlive them both. Jane Avril (1868-1943) survived a difficult childhood to become one of the great entertainers of her day. Zsa Zsa Gabor delivers one of her better performances as the charming dancer immortalised in Toulouse-Lautrec's posters. Toulouse-Lautrec's friend Maurice Joyant (1864-1930, played by Lee Montague) wrote one of the first biographies of the artist. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Huston was well-born, and both artists shared a deep passion for the truth plus a strong determination to establish their own reputations quite separate and apart from the circumstances of their birth. Both succeeded, although Toulouse-Lautrec undoubtedly paid the higher price. Huston lovingly recreates the Moulin Rouge in all its garish splendor, paying meticulous attention to the Technicolor process, trying to get every detail just right. ("Moulin Rouge" did win the Oscar for art direction and set decoration that year.) It's a sad, exquisite film of an irretrievably vanished era that still has the power to lure us into its spell, if only in our dreams.