While I certainly have many wonderful things to say about Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical extravaganza of the same name, my heart will always belong to director/co-writer John Huston’s 1952 version of Moulin Rouge. It serves as both a showcase for the bygone era of Paris and the Moulin Rouge cabaret as well as a biopic of its primary chronicler, the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer). He was at the center of it all, sketching scenes of dance and debauchery while drinking himself into a stupor. The film moves back and forth from Henri’s happy youth (which turned to tragedy when an accident saw his legs shattered so badly they could never be repaired correctly, leaving him diminutive and unappealing to women he loved desperately) to his days as a celebrated artist who became one of the few of his day to become successful while still alive.
Thanks to Oscar-winning costuming and art direction, the film’s vibrant colors pop off the screen, fulfilling Huston’s wish that the film appear as if Toulouse-Lautrec had made it himself. The painter has brief moments of personal happiness, first with an unstable prostitute named Marie Charlet (then-newcomer Colette Marchand), then with the positively charming Myriamme Hayam (Suzanne Flon), who Toulouse-Lautrec naturally rejects, thinking she’s using him to make another man jealous. This sends the artist into an alcohol-fueled tailspin that leads to the film’s most haunting sequence—a death bed fever dream in which the many colorful characters from the Moulin Rogue come to visit the man who captured their forms in posters and paintings that are still beloved today.
Huston always brilliantly brings us back to the club to give us a respite from Henri’s rather dark story, and in the process we are treated to flirty can-can numbers and wonderfully overly dramatic songs from the likes of Jane Avirl (Zsa Zsa Gabor, at her absolute most captivating). Cinematographer Oswald Morris’ fluid camera work moves effortlessly through the locations and makes each seem alive and breathing. A great deal of the acting seems heightened, and I’m fairly certain that’s deliberate, though it may put off those who prefer their performances a bit less showy. To me, it all seems like part of the sensation one probably got if you spent night after night at a place built upon hormonally charged dreams. Moulin Rogue is a movie like no other, and it’s one that feels fresh and original nearly 70 years later.
The film opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where it will screen on Friday, Nov. 8 at 2pm; Sunday, Nov. 10 at 3:15pm; and Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 6pm.
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