John Huston's bio-pic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, starts rambunctiously and, then, withers into bathos. Nonetheless, the film is moving and, in fact, one of those rare pictures that makes it's own narrative failure thematic. The morose gloom that congests the picture and, finally, makes it unrewarding corresponds with the artist's affliction -- a spiritual deformity that exceeds the hero's physical impairment. Although the picture isn't exactly successful, it contains a number of fine things and is worth seeing, if only for its first half-hour.
In the beginning of the film, Toulouse-Lautrec is sketching on a table-cloth in the Moulin-Rouge and we are captivated to see performances from the great artists and dancers in that cabaret. Two women dance with feral abandon with a suave black man and a Flaneur with a long pointed chin. After the dance, the women fight, apparently, taking seriously the jocular scenario of the choreography. Then, a beautiful courtesan appears and sings a song a heart-breaking beauty -- this is the very young Zsa-Zsa Gabor performing the theme from Moulin Rouge, a gorgeous lament by the great George Auric. Lautrec is like the resident genius of the huge saloon and each artist comes to salute him at his table. Finally, a group of can-can dancers appears and cavorts to Offenbach -- this is one of the best, and most thrilling, dance numbers in cinema, intercut with shots of fat, drunk audience members who are hysterical with pleasure. The can-can girls' high-kicking and splits ends the show and everyone goes home and, only after this spectacle, is it revealed that Lautrec (played by Jose Ferrer) is deformed, a full torso and large, even leonine, head mounted on short stocky legs that are only knee-high. Lautrec is lonely and, as he walks home, he encounters a blonde prostitute pursued by the local gendarme -- the prostitute spends the night at his house and becomes his girlfriend. However, she is badly damaged and returns to her pimp. Lautrec is heart-broken and, after the final break with the girl, goes to his apartment, turns on the gas and plans to die -- but, then, he is rescued by his genius: he sees a way to improve a poster for the Moulin Rouge on which he has been stalled, uses his brush to inflect the painting with these new ideas, and is sufficiently inspired to shut off the gas and live. He becomes famous and several years pass. One morning, after a long night of partying -- the artist has become a drunk -- he sees a mysterious and beautiful woman on a bridge over the Seine. She is throwing something into the river. Lautrec thinks she might be suicidal but learns that she is, instead, very independent and self-reliant. The woman has just broken up with a handsome aristocrat who has asked her to marry him. Lautrec meets her later and she becomes his constant companion. It is evident that she has fallen in love with him, but he continues to coldly rebuff her -- he has become an icy cynic about matters of the heart. Ultimately, the woman opts to marry the handsome aristocrat, sending Lautrec a letter confessing her love for him. Lautrec drinks himself to death. Finally, he falls down a flight of steps in a scene that echoes an earlier flashback that shows how he originally broke his legs and became deformed -- he fell down the marble steps at his family's country estate: his parents are wealthy nobles. As he lies dying, his father announces that one of his pictures has been accepted at the Louvre. Lautrec imagines the good old days at Moulin Rouge and there is a reprise of the exciting dancing and singing in the cabaret, this time performed by phantoms. Then, he dies. The final scene of the movie packs a powerful punch and I would guess that projected on the full screen in 1952, many audience members had to blink away tears while watching -- the film's ending also works emotionally because it is just this madcap infusion of energy and joy that characterized the film's bravura opening sequence that the movie has been painfully missing for the last eighty minutes or so. Beginning with the excruciating scenes with the prostitute, the film takes on a gloomy note and simply and stoically chronicles Lautrec's deterioration. The hero's self-destructive self-loathing is powerfully expressed but it is ultimately not a dramatic stance, a psychic situation that resists dramatization -- rather, Lautrec does everything possible to undercut himself, including ignoring the obvious affection of his beautiful and self-possessed companion during the movie's last hour -- he calls himself her "ape" and says that "beautiful women were often known to go out in public with an ape so to render their beauty all the more admirable in comparison with the creature attending upon them." During the last half of the film, Ferrer speaks in brittle epigrams and bobs his head around to show that he is drunk and, in fact, makes his character so unpleasant that you long for his demise. The part is well-written but extremely superficial -- I understood the conceit, that is the concept, underlying the role, but it doesn't really register emotionally. The set decoration and gowns and lighting are all fabulous. The Moulin Rouge is a smoky phantasmagoria with a full orchestra hanging overhead on a balcony and the fauvist color schemes are extraordinary -- the expressionistic use of color, particularly acid greens and livid yellow, here intended to invoke Lautrec's palette reminds me of scenes in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind. When Lautrec swills absinthe, the images are half-dissolved in an eerie green light. The chamber in which Lautrec's lady-friend declares her love for him is absolutely vaginal with pink folded curtains, mirrors oddly placed to reflect labial drapery, soft, yielding cushions and pillows everywhere. Despite the lavish color scheme, Huston's direction is unassuming and not overly emphatic -- if he were to pile on directorial excess (as Baz Luhrman did in his remake) it would be excess upon what is already excess and, so, of course, a surfeit. Huston lets the choreography play out in long takes. He uses very few close-ups. But those that employs are powerful -- one of the most indelible shows one of the great dancers from the Moulin Rouge reduced to penury, drunk and ranting on the street: the shot shows the woman's misery but, also, captures the spirit that once made her wonderful. There is a lot that is questionable in the film -- for instance, I doubt that Lautrec's posters "destroyed" the Moulin Rouge by making it "overly popular". But this is a picture worth seeing -- in only for the flamboyant and exuberant first half hour.