I will freely admit that part of the reason I’m doing 1952 right now is because after watching Moulin Rouge! (2001), I was curious about this movie. I wasn’t sure if the 2001 version was a drug-induced remake of the same story or a weird Baz Luhrmann fantasy that had nothing to do with John Huston’s movie. It turns out that except for the setting, they don’t really have much to do with each other. That made me glad, because I much prefer John Huston’s vision over Luhrmann’s, and I hate it when people are more familiar with subpar remakes than with the fantastic originals.
So what’s the story? Aristocrat Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec turns his back on his privileged upbringing to become an artist during the heady days of late 19th century France.
The Good: Josè Ferrer. Toulouse-Lautrec is a complicated character in this movie. He’s an angry drunk who is convinced that life won’t bring him anything good. Ferrer does an excellent job with that.
Henri has two different women in his life: Marie Chalet and Myriamme Hayam. Colette Marchand is Marie Chalet, a beautiful, yet poor, woman who doesn’t mind Henri’s deformities. Marie is a hateful, pettish gold-digger, and Marchand plays her perfectly. The more sympathetic, mature Myriamme is played heart-breakingly well by Suzanne Flon.
Another great thing about this movie is that it has Zsa Zsa Gabor. Even though she has top billing after Jose Ferrer, her role is rather small. But you can tell that she’s having so much fun basically playing herself that you just have to love her. I have to admit, I find the Gabor sisters fascinating; they were kind of like the Kardashians (famous for no good reason), but super classy. I think they would have interesting people to know. And I will stop crushing on Zsa Zsa now and move on.
There is some clever camera work in this movie. In real life, Toulouse-Lautrec was 5’1”. Josè Ferrer was much taller. He spent quite a bit of the movie walking on his knees to be closer to the right height. You can’t tell, and I love that you can’t tell. This movie would have been just silly if they had done a bad job with Henri’s height because it’s so central to the story.
The dancing in the movie is ridiculously amazing. I have never seen the cancan done in real life, but I had a vague idea that it involved high kicks while balancing on one foot. I would suggest that even if you don’t ever watch this movie, at least google the cancan scene from this movie. It takes serious skill and athleticism to do it. I was blown away. Oh, and in case you’re wondering (or worried), no, the dancers don’t wear split bloomers. The movie’s from the 1950s; that would have been too scandalous.
I love how 19th century Paris and Toulouse-Lautrec’s art were brought to life. The clothes and the colors and the costumes are all fantastic. There are rich people and poor people and you can differentiate between them (which isn’t always the case in the movies). The costume and makeup people paid close attention to the art and took some of the clothes, makeup, and hairstyles straight from his paintings. I loved it. I also loved the two interludes where the paintings themselves were flashed on the screen to music that matched them. It was a good way to show passage of time and also to highlight what Toulouse-Lautrec did and what lower-class Paris was like at the time. It was very cool.
Even though I minored in art history in college, I don’t know much about Toulouse-Lautrec’s life in general. Seeing as how this is a biopic based on a novel based on his life, it’s probably not completely accurate. But I liked the story. It didn’t make Henri out to be perfect, but it gave him more dignity than he had in Moulin Rouge! (2001), which was something that really bothered me about that movie.
The Bad: I can’t think of anything about this movie that’s bad. It’s mostly good, except for the ending, which flies past “bad” and lands in “ugly”.
The Ugly: The ending is so cheesily bad. It rivals Goodbye, Mr. Chips for cheesy badness.
Oscars Won: Best art direction-set decoration, color; best costume design, color.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Josè Ferrer); best actress in a supporting role (Colette Marchand); best director; best film editing.
Random Fact: It is really hard to type “Moulin Rouge”. My fingers want to type “Moulin Rogue,” which works, too, but it sounds like a superhero who patrols the streets of Paris. (“Who was that masked man by the mill?” “Don’t you know? That was the Moulin Rogue!”)
Another Random Fact: Peter Cushing (AKA Grand Moff Tarkin) has a small role in this movie. Watch for him at the horse races!