MOULIN ROUGE has unfortunately been left in the flashy wake of the 2001 musical, so its artistry begs another look, lest it stay packed up in the movie equivalent of a box of photos you stick under the bed, waiting for someone to pass away before you sift through and find “wow, I didn’t know this was there!”
John Huston directed and co-wrote (with Anthony Veiller) this 1952 classic about the tormented life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the memorable characters who swirled around him in the Paris of the 1890s. A markedly frank and adult movie for the time, giving the audience credit for some taste and brains. Though intensely dramatic, sympathetic and moving, it doesn’t bog down in syrup or fakery.
Jose Ferrer is faultless in the lead; he threw himself into the physical emulation of the artists diminutive height by an extremely painful process of using kneepads to cushion him so he could walk on his knees with his legs fastened behind his back. The ache from the get-up no doubt played into Ferrer’s reflection of the personal abuse heaped on Lautrec by his street-walker lover (Colette Marchand’s scorn burns like acid) and others.
The rest of the cast work well, even Zsa Zsa Gabor, who Huston somehow coaxed an acceptable performance out of (he thought she “moved like a tank”). They include Suzanne Flon, Katherine Kath and in small parts Theodore Bikel, Eric Pohlmann, Maureen Swanson, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Diane Cilento.
Huston made an inspired choice with his cinematographer Oswald Morris to desaturate Technicolor, using gels and mist to bring out the pastel effect from paintings of the period and reflect Lautrec’s style and the textural feel conveyed by the Post-Impressionist crowd. Executives at Technicolor complained like crazy that Huston would tarnish their brand, but he fought back adamantly and somehow won. A victory for sure— if anything he made the color even more stunning, a beautiful movie to just look at.
It’s also great listen to, with the delicate music score by Georges Auric giving play to the sweet melancholy of “Le long de la Seine” and a riotous version of Offenbach’s “Can-Can” —directed and danced in a brilliant explosion of color and verve.
Playing out in 119 minutes, it won Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design (both marvelous) and was nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress (Marchand) and Film Editing. This was the year the silly The Greatest Show On Earth was awarded Best Picture–ouch. Huston’s triumph came in at the #7 spot for big earners.