Moulin Rouge Review
Paris, 1890. We begin with a shot of the famous red windmill the Moulin Rouge cabaret is named after. It’s a shot of the actual place, though not the one portrayed in this film, as that was burned down in 1915 and rebuilt and reopened a year later and is a tourist attraction to this day. We move inside, to a large studio set at Shepperton, and a riot of moving camera and three-strip Technicolor, culminating in a performance of the cancan. And at the side of the room, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer), sketching. It’s a great opening to a film, and the first fifteen minutes comes close to overwhelming the rest of the two hours.
Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the major artists of the Post-Impressionist period, his contemporaries including Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. He is particularly associated with paintings and lithographic poster work capturing the decadence of fin-de-siècle Paris, with sometimes scandalous results and the disapproval of his aristocratic parents. He became an alcoholic, which contributed to his early death, in 1901 at the age of thirty-six. Shortly before he died, he became the first living artist to have his work hung in the Louvre.
Henri broke his legs as a child as the result of a fall, and the bones did not heal properly. Doctors attributed this to congenital weaknesses due to a family history of inbreeding: his parents were first cousins. This restricted his growth and his adult height was 4’8”. He was played by an actor of 5’10”. Nowadays, you might cast an actor with dwarfism to play the role – Peter Dinklage, say, though his dwarfism has a different cause than Toulouse-Lautrec’s. Various devices are used so that Ferrer can play the role: Ferrer standing in hidden pits and using a double with dwarfism for shots with Toulouse-Lautrec walking away from camera, but most often Ferrer’s legs strapped and shoes attached to his knees. This was particularly uncomfortable, and due to circulation being cut off in his legs, Ferrer could only perform in in this apparatus for twenty minutes at a time. Also, he was forty at the time the film was made, and for much of the running time is playing Toulouse-Lautrec in his mid-twenties. Ferrer also plays Toulouse-Lautrec’s father, Count Alphonse.
At one point, Toulouse-Lautrec mentions other artists who didn’t live to see their forrtieth birthdays, and this film tells the story of his short life, in particular through his relationships with the women in his life, in particular Marie Charlet (Corinne Marchand), a prostitute with whom he took up and used as the subject of his paintings, despite her baiting him for his small stature and her passing on of his money to her boyfriend. The film suggests that it was her rejection which led to his drinking. Other women in his life included singer Jane Avril, played rather blandly by Zsa Zsa Gabor (singing voice dubbed by Muriel Smith), and his later companion Myriamme Hyam (Suzanne Flon).
With a screenplay by John Huston and Anthony Veiller from a novel by Pierre La Mure, Moulin Rouge was a British production, shot mostly at Shepperton with location work in France. Although most of the principal cast were American and French, you can see English actors in small roles, including a bearded Christopher Lee in one scene as Georges Seurat and Peter Cushing towards the end of the film as Marcel de la Voisier, the man Myriamme leaves Toulouse-Lautrec for. Behind the camera were some future distinguished names: associate producer Jack Clayton and camera operator Freddie Francis.
The original cinematographer was Otto Heller, but John Huston was unhappy with his test footage, so replaced him with Oswald Morris. Morris had entered the film industry in 1933 at the age of eighteen, working his way up by the traditional path of clapper boy to camera assistant to operator, before becoming a director of photography in 1950, only two years before this film was made. Moulin Rouge was Morris’s first large-scale assignment, shot in three-strip Technicolor. Morris and Huston aimed to replicate the look of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, which involved using fog filters and on-set smoke to mute the colours. Technicolor were unhappy with their work, as the film didn’t conform to their preferred look for their process, all strong, bright. saturated hues. The film does succeed in capturing the look of its subject’s work, as you can see in some montage sequences showing Toulouse-Lautrec’s actual paintings. Huston experimented with changing colour tones in later films, for example the look of Moby Dick (1956), also shot by Morris, which replicated the look of old whaling prints, and much later, the use of desaturated colour in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), shot by Aldo Tonti and an uncredited Morris.
Huston was an artist himself – he had moved into writing and later directing and producing as a less financially precarious career – and was also an art collector. Making a film about Toulouse-Lautrec had been a project close to his heart. in later years he said he wasn’t satisfied with Moulin Rouge as he thought the censorship of the time, with the Production Code in force and the Legion of Decency willing to condemn any film they found unacceptable, prevented a full account of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life. There is some truth in this, but plenty to appreciate in the film as well, which stands as one of the major colour productions of its time. It won Oscars for its colour art direction and set decoration and costume design, rightly so, but Oswald Morris was not even nominated for his cinematography. However, the British Society of Cinematographers did recognise him for his work. Moulin Rouge was also Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Director, Ralph Kemplen’s editing and the performances of Ferrer and Marchand.
Moulin Rouge is a dual-format release from the BFI, and a checkdisc of the Blu-ray was received for review. The film received an A certificate from the British Board of Film Censors (now Classification) in 1952 and now has its equivalent, a PG. The package is raised to a 12 because of the short film Lautrec, which was also an A on its release in 1974 but now has the higher rating for “moderate nudity”. The other extras are documentaries or actualities which have been exempted from certification.
This Blu-ray transfer is derived from a 4K restoration of the film from the original three-strip nitrate camera negatives. High definition does show up much use of that fog filter, especially during the opening sequence, more than might have been seen in cinemas in prints three generations away from the negative. I had only seen this film before on television, and there is no comparison. This is a transfer that does justice to its source, with the colours solid and the grain natural and filmlike. The film was made in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and that’s what this transfer is in.
The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for the feature and Lautrec.
The extras begin with a commentary. Angela Allen had a fifty-five-year career as what was originally called a continuity girl and later a script supervisor. She first worked with John Huston on The African Queen and did continuity on Moulin Rouge a year later, going on to work regularly with him. Now ninety, she is interviewed on this commentary track by the BFI’s John Ramchandani and Vic Pratt. Allen has a clear memory and talks about her work with Huston and other directors, and also her career as a woman in a male-dominated industry, in a very informative chat.
The other extras are mostly divided into two groups, both with Play All options. The first is Images of Paris in Silent Film, from material held in the BFI National Archive, showing the French capital from just within Toulouse-Lautrec’s lifetime to 1925. The films are Panorama Around the Eiffel Tower (1900, 1:14), Paris Street Scene (1900, 0:45), Panorama of the Paris Exhibition No. 3 (1900, 0:41), The Paris and St Louis Expositions (1904, 12:56), The Paris Sensation (1914, 1:23) and Balloon Accident at St Cloud (1925, 1:02). These silent films were presented with music scores. The two Expositions, in 1900 and 1904, were held in conjunction with the second and third Olympic Games in those cities, and the displays seemed to have been a greater attraction than the sport. The Paris Sensation is footage of the funeral of Gaston Calmette, a newspaper editor shot dead by the wife of an opponent.
The second grouping is “Lightning Sketches: Posters, Printing and Caricatures in Silent Film”, also from material held in the BFI National Archive and also with a Play All option. As the film shows, as well as a painter, Toulouse-Lautrec also practised poster art, which was then mass-produced. Many of these films deal with the art of the cartoonist. The films are: Tom Merry, Lighting Cartoonist, Sketching Kaiser Wilhelm II (1895, 0:07), The Bill Poster (1899, 0:51), Employees of Co-Operative Wholesale Society Printing Works, Longsight, Manchester (1901, 1:41), Anti-German War Cartoons (1915, 5:12), Studdy’s War Cartoons (1915, 6:03), Dicky Dec’s Cartoons No 3 (1915, 4:36) and First World War Cartoon – Jolire (1915, 1:29). The first, shot by British cinema pioneer Birt Acres, and the last are the surviving fragments of longer works. The factory employees were filmed by Mitchell & Kenyon, whose films are now held by the BFI and have been released on four other BFI disc releases. The war cartoons use an undercranked camera so that we can see the cartoonist at work in speeded-up time.
The final short film on this disc is Lautrec (5:47), a short from 1974 directed by Geoff Dunbar. Funded by the Arts Council, it is a tribute to Toulouse-Lautrec, combining animation, often black and white with splashes of colour intending to look like the artist’s work, with some still photographs, set to a music score. Finally on the disc is a self-navigating image gallery (19:43), featuring posters, lobby cards and stills for Moulin Rouge, the latter all in black and white.
The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to twenty-four pages plus covers. It begins with an essay by John Oliver, with a spoiler warning at the start, though that’s hardly necessary with a film like this based on historical events. The essay covers Huston’s urge to make the film, settling on the novel which was eventually adapted (and to which, as it turned out, Jose Ferrer had bought the stage-adaptation rights), to the production and the film’s reception. Next up, Dr Josephine Botting contributes a four-page biography of Huston. The booklet also contains full film credits, notes on and credits for the extras, and stills.