Review: Moulin Rouge (1952)

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Directed by: John Huston | 119 minutes | drama, music, romance, biography | Actors: José Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Suzanne Flon, Claude Nollier, Katherine Kath, Muriel Smith, Mary Clare, Walter Crisham, Lee Montague, Jim Gérald, Georges Lannes, Harold Kasket, Maureen Swanson, Tutte Lemkow, Jill Bennett, Theodore Bikel , Peter Cushing, Charles Carson, Walter Cross, Colette Marchand, Hilary Allen, Michael Balfour, Madge Brindley, Maria Britneva, Jacques Cey, Diane Cilento, Jean Claudio, Michèle Clément, Irissa Cooper, Ina De La Haye, Hugh Dempster, Francis De Wolff, Suzi Euzaine, Fernand Fabre, Christopher Lee, Christopher Rhodes, Eric Pohlmann

The Moulin Rouge has been an important source of inspiration for artists for decades. From painters and poster designers to film makers and photographers. The nightclub symbolizes the vibrant Belle Époque and the lifestyle that the free-spirited bohemians of Paris had adopted at the end of the nineteenth century. The most famous film in which the nightclub is central is ‘Moulin Rouge!’, that musical from 2001 by Baz Luhrmann. But years earlier, the cabaret in the red light district of Paris had been the setting for films. Just think of the 1940 version with a swinging Josephine Baker in the lead role. John Huston gave the Moulin Rouge a central place in his biopic about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the famous but tragic artist who spent his days in the nightclub drawing the dancers. He designed the famous poster that gave the Moulin Rouge its fame and made him a star himself. However, the poster not only brought prosperity…

‘Moulin Rouge’ (1952) opens with a swinging nightclub scene that immediately betrays the charm of the establishment: at a time when people did not let themselves go so easily, it was difficult to stay put. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer) makes sketches of the dancers every day, while drinking cognac. It won’t be long before we get to know him better. Although he comes from a wealthy family, he is attracted to the underbelly of Parisian society. Perhaps because he feels more at home among these ‘misfits’: Henri is deformed himself. In his youth he had a serious accident, from which he never recovered. As a result, his legs have not grown further and he measures no more than five feet. His head and torso are of normal size, but his legs are very short. Because of his deformity, it is not easy for the artist to find a loved one. Until one evening he meets street girl Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand). He falls in love with her, but their relationship is difficult. When she leaves him, it is impossible for Toulouse-Lautrec to produce another work of art, so he sets out to find her.

Although the title of the film suggests that this film revolves around the Moulin Rouge, the nightclub only plays a minor role. This is a film about the tragic life of Toulouse-Lautrec and his quest for love, fame and the respect of his father. The intrepid John Huston – who loved to paint himself – knew better than anyone how to create a timeless and classic drama. Thanks to the dazzling opening scenes in the Moulin Rouge (music and choreography are perfectly fine), he immediately wins over the audience, after which he skillfully builds up the story around Toulouse-Lautrec. The atmosphere that Huston creates is very convincing: not only in the Moulin Rouge but also outside it, you really imagine yourself in the atmosphere of Montmartre from around 1900. Moreover, thanks to the excellent acting of José Ferrer, he manages to get into the skin of the artist and as such the distorted world view that the best man had to characterize. In the colorful Technicolor, the colorful characters, warm sets and colorful clothing – which match the artworks of the painter – are emphasized even more and it is even more striking that Toulouse-Lautrec is the only one who is dressed gray and dark. Very different from the ‘Moulin Rouge!’ from 2001, but just as beautiful.

This film also holds its own in terms of content, because except for a small dip (just over halfway), Huston manages to captivate his audience for two hours. Toulouse-Lautrec is therefore a fascinating figure, whose life was characterized by tragedy and inner turmoil. The painter was plagued by demons and constantly had to contend with the high demands his father placed on him and the consequences of his physical imperfection on his love life. No wonder he reached for the bottle. His life is, of course, somewhat romanticized by Hollywood standards (the real Toulouse-Lautrec is said to have been a frequent visitor to brothels, sometimes staying for weeks at a time – but a love-ravaged artist who loses his mind after his beloved of course does better on the silver screen), but broadly speaking we get a realistic picture of his life. José Ferrer makes him tangible. Although Toulouse-Lautrec in all his self-pity, bitterness and cynicism was actually not a nice man at all, Ferrer makes him likeable. To be credible as a ‘little man’, handy camera angles were frequently used, but the actor also had to walk around on his knees a number of times. A painful experience, which, however, earned him an Oscar nomination. Colette Marchand and Suzanne Flon also play their roles convincingly. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s song and the fights between the two prima donnas of the Moulin Rouge, however, could have been left out. Keep an eye out for Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in bit parts!

‘Moulin Rouge’, which received seven Oscar nominations and cashed in on two of them (for art direction and costume design), is a worthy biopic of an interesting character. While Toulouse-Lautrec may not have been so special as an artist, his tragic life story is all the more so. Thanks to the well-balanced direction of John Huston, whom you can of course send on an errand, the excellent acting by Ferrer, Marchand and Flon and the vibrant and colorful photography, ‘Moulin Rouge’ has become more than worthwhile.

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