Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I just don't understand negative criticism of John Huston. He hardly ever made similar pictures, which certainly didn't endear him to auteurist critics. His biggest hits may be somewhat overrated yet are still basically good, as with The African Queen. A crazy gambler, Huston also some pictures to pay debts but also took on uncommercial projects because he believed in them. Some of his biggest flops are my favorites. We Were Strangers is an intense movie with heroes that would now be called terrorists, and The Roots of Heaven practically invented the idea of ecological activism before anybody had coined the term.
Moulin Rouge was one of Huston's biggest hits - it helped finance at least one film, Moby Dick -- but it's often termed kitsch because it simplifies its subject and consciously mimicks the look of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. The film's "look" is much more than just decorative. The amazing colors evoke a vision of the past populated by the fabulous characters in the man's paintings and sketches. And Huston's script conveys a sympathy for its lonely characters that combines nostalgia with personal pain and regret.
Aristocratic cripple Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer) makes the scandalous Moulin Rouge nightclub famous through his paintings and posters, precipitating its dilution to a respectable tourist attraction. Traumatized by the scorn and abuse of streetwalker Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand), he is later too cynical to recognize the true love of another, Myriamme Hayam (Suzanne Flon). As Henri's fame grows, so does his alcoholism.
Jean Renoir called his tribute to the Moulin Rouge with Jean Gabin French Cancan; I believe a DVD of that show is on its way from Criterion later in the year. John Huston's movie uses the nightclub as background for the famous painter who popularized it. Painter Toulouse-Lautrec moves in fine social circles and creates works of beauty, but is himself cursed with a physical deformity.
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.
Zsa Zsa Gabor gets favored billing and is picture perfect as Jane Avril, the butterfly star singer with the brain addled by romance. The actress either knew the type well or adopted the same persona for her later career, trading husbands like fashions. The fact that her singing is dubbed (and not all that closely) doesn't change the intense beauty of her scenes; it's hard to imagine this woman slapping a Beverly Hills policeman. 2
As Henri's brazen tormentor Marie Charlet, Colette Marchand was given a sizeable publicity build-up but only made a few more features. She was a dancer primarily, but she doesn't dance here. Charlet is tough customer to understand but Henri gives her every benefit of the doubt; Huston charitably refuses to paint her with a black heart. Suzanne Flon has a more controlled character to play, and her Myriamme Hayam approaches Henri with great caution. Carefully staying out of the controlling influence of men has served Myriamme well, so well that the correct signals between them don't happen until it's too late -- she's reserved, and he stays cynically aloof. Ms. Flon became a favorite of Orson Welles and appeared in Mr. Arkadin and The Trial as well as The Train and Monsieur Klein.
Huston has recreated the famous dancers in Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings and given them amusingly vain personalities. La Gouloue (Katherine Kath) and Aicha (Muriel Smith) fight like cats and dogs. Ms. Smith dubbed the singing voice for Bloody Mary in the film version of South Pacific. Valentin Dessousse (Walter Grisham) is the spindly-thin dancer with the top hat and long chin. It looks artifical here, and I've wondered if it was supposed to be an artificial stage appliance, either for effect or perhaps to cover up a war wound. Such things were common later, after WW1. The final dancer is good old Tutte Lemkow, the toothy short fellow with the goatee who provided choreography and appeared in many films like Bonjour Tristesse. He also arranged
the bal masque in The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Around the periphery are a number of faces that grab our attention. Actress Jill Bennett (Brittania Hospital, Julius Caesar, The Charge of the Light Brigade) dresses up the bar with her striking face. Diane Cilento is said to be in there somewhere; George Pastell (From Russia with Love,
The Mummy) is a sullen man in another bar.
Finally there's the first "unpaired" pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing! Lee has one scene as Georges Seurat (the painter subject of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George) but gets no on-screen credit. Cushing's part is only a tiny bit bigger but he gets to strut and preen for a few moments as Myriamme's fancy-man suitor. Cushing is perfect, and so young his cheekbones don't look hollow yet. He must have been impressed with himself in huge Technicolor closeup, and thought, "Hmm, if only I could talk Hammer into using me and color in the same picture ..."
MGM's DVD of Moulin Rouge is a great disc. Everyone will want to know about the color -- has it been tuned to the original look of the film or rethought afresh by new eyes that don't know about Oswald Morris' color experiments? I haven't seen original prints so I can't say, but this looks extremely pleasing to me, very soft-hued in the nightclub scenes. The picture is clean, detailed and rock-solid, one of those films where every third shot looks like it should be hanging in a museum.
The audio is almost as good. I'd say the same element that seemed slightly distorted and 'crunchy' on the earlier laserdisc (now a discardable relic) has been given a very careful audio going-over. It's brighter and more robust than ever.
The only extra is the original trailer that tries to emphasize "scandalous" content (?), the grain and overblown color here reminds me of older transfers of the film. The DVD cover design would seem to be purposely aping the marketing scheme of the recent film of the same name, as if desperate to be mistaken for it. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Moulin Rouge rates:
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2004
1. I'm told there is a screamingly funny SCTV takeoff on Moulin Rouge that mocks the artist's hopeless love life yet does so with an obvious affection. 3 There's also a movie out a couple of years ago that got a bunch of awards, with Ni - Nico somebody. It was a musical ... huh, it was so unimportant that
I've forgotten the details.
2. The Gabor sisters weren't overestimated in the beauty department. I still remember the summer of 1972 at the National Westwood theater when Eva Gabor came in on the arm of some millionaire, wearing plenty of jewelry. I was the gawking usher who leaned over the candy counter to see her face clearly -- the woman had the complexion of a porcelain doll, just amazing. It was the kind of beauty divorced from personality per se, like a fairytale princess. And in that year she couldn't have been that young, either.
3. From "B", 6/13/04:The SCTV "Moulin Rouge" sketch is called
Lust for Paint. Very funny, with jokes about other films about famous artists thrown in.
It's a skit from the early syndicated version of the show so it's a trifle low-budget, but the
performances are wacky and have the usual great verve.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson