"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Moulin Rouge

By ClassicBecky

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. 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 landscape. 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.


  1. Great article! Makes me want to see the movie again soon. Huston's true genious shines in this movie. Hard to find movies with depth and insight like the Moulin Rouge anymore.I love your blog!

    Laura S

  2. Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite movies. Always need a hanky at the end
    SCTV did a brillliant parody sketches called "Lust for Paint". In the end, the Louvre sends word that they have accepted all of Lautrec's tablecloths, and ask if he has matching napkins.

  3. Panavia, thanks for commenting on my article. Boy do I wish I could see that parody you describe. It sounds hilarious. Matching napkins ... that is wonderful!