Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moulin Rouge - True Beauty in Film

I would not be able to write about Moulin Rouge without surrounding the words with the works of the great genius Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. His life needed little embellishing for John Huston to create a movie about the greatness and tragedy of this artist. Lautrec recorded his own life in watercolor, oils and sketches. In 1952, John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris created the life and art of Lautrec in magnificent smoky color, each scene looking exactly like a Lautrec painting. Huston had a vision that the film should look as if Lautrec himself had directed it. Huston was true to his vision. Another creative artist worked with Huston to bring Lautrec to life – the marvelous Jose Ferrer. His performance and dedication to the role is without equal.

Toulouse Lautrec took a fall down a flight of stairs as a boy, and that simple accident created an extreme deformity that marked his life forever. His broken legs would never mend, and he ended up only 4’10”, his adult sized torso supported by legs the length of a child’s. Jose Ferrer, in striving to be like Lautrec, had his legs strapped up behind him and used special pads to walk on his knees in what must have been an extremely painful way. Huston also used special camera angles and in long shots, doubles to portray Lautrec's physicality.  But besides these, plus the fact of Ferrer’s amazing resemblance to Lautrec, it was Ferrer’s superb acting that brought to life Lautrec in all of the anger, pathos and genius that were his life.

Lautrec loathed his body, longed for love that he felt he would never be given, and hid his pain beneath a caustic wit. He also dealt with the mental and physical pain by an addiction to absinthe which he drank from morning to night. In the 1952 movie, it is said that he drank cognac, probably because of absinthe’s reputation as an evil opiate used only by depraved people. We know that Lautrec found sympathy and release in the Paris brothels, where he was known for his virility. Many of his well-known paintings are of the women of the streets and brothels.

But his most famous works are of the bohemian café, the Moulin Rouge. It is there that the Can-Can was popularized, and the café was rough and inviting. It was there that Lautrec befriended Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor), the singer. He also came to know La Goulue, the wild, rough and tumble, unabashedly sexual dancer (Katherine Kath). His sketches of the Moulin were made into posters to advertise the café, and they became a part of the bohemian quarter. In a double performance, Ferrer also played his disapproving father, the Count of Toulouse, who was ashamed of his son’s life as a street artist

Women were always a big part of Lautrec’s life, particularly two. The first is the deceitful and manipulative Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand), a street whore who pushes her way into Lautrec’s life with promises of acceptance and affection. Her betrayal of him led him to want to take his own life. The second woman was Myriamme (Suzanne Flon), a beautiful woman who truly loved Lautrec, but by the time she came into his life, he was too embittered to believe her.

The incredible beauty of this film is only enhanced by the superb performances of the cast, showing La Goulue in her decline, Marie Charlet in her evil, Myriamme in her goodness. Not just a beautiful movie, the music for Moulin Rouge by Georges Auric is remarkable. It moves from the gaiety of the Can Can to the deepest tragedy to a soft lilt when the paintings of Lautrec are shown throughout the film. There are many wonderful movies that I love, but Moulin Rouge will always have a special place in my love of beauty and truth.  As the prologue of the film states, his brushes are dry, but this movie makes him live again in the Paris of the late 19th century which he loved.


  1. Becky, I have never seen this film. Lautrec sounds like a burdened man with physical challenges and alcohol dependency. It is interesting that his art shows a lot of motion, especially of legs, and is very colorful and filled with attractive people. Jose Ferrer was an excellent Cyrano and I can visualize him in this role. Thank you for painting a vivid portrait of a work about which you are passionate.

  2. Becky, this was a very informative post on a movie I haven't seen in a long time. What I remember best about it is the elaborate set design and the colorful costumes, which both earned Oscars. I was also amazed with how Huston used camera angles and depth perspective to make Ferrer look shorter (I didn't know about tying his legs, too). What did you think of the Baz Lurman pseudo-remake?

  3. Rick, I really don't consider the Lurman movie to be related at all. It was excellent, but I can see no comparison to this film. Lautrec was done as a caricature by John Leguizamo, and very well done, as so many of the characters were caricature types, such as the duke. It was a clever, unusual movie that I liked very much, but not any kind of remake in my opinion. I have such an empathy and love for Lautrec, it was almost difficult for me to see him caricatured like that, but the movie was well done enough to make it palatable to me.

  4. Great post on a great film, Becky. It seems that John Huston had some kind of battle regarding the color on this film. I haven't been able to dig up the source where I first read this info, but it seems whatever he was up to back in 1952 was somehow different or unusual and perhaps hasn't truly been seen on TV (?). I'm not a fan of the Baz Luhrman film (thought the music could've been better selected) - and don't see any connection beyond the name.

  5. What a beautiful post. A worthy successor to "On Your Toes." As I read, words and images from Le Moulin Rouge flashed before my eyes; I felt as though I was seeing the film through your eyes. Incredibly, I did not know that LMR was directed by John Huston. No wonder it is such a great movie!

  6. Beautiful! blog Becky, for a beautiful movie. This movie grabbed me from the beginning, and did not let go. i think iam going to have to add this DVD to my collection.