Paris, 1899, and the Moulin Rouge is the most famous nightspot in the city, attended by all strata of society who enthusiastically drink and watch the Can-Can dancers perform, as much for the sparky rivalry between the girls as they are the chance to see the flashes of underwear. And in a corner, there is Toulouse Lautrec (José Ferrer), son of wealthy parents who has given up the comfortable life mapped out for him in favour of coming to the French capital and trying to make a living as an artist. The entertainers are his favoured subject, so much so that he even sketches on tablecloths as he watches, but public and critical acclaim elude him, and his mental state grows ever more fraught...
Every so often filmmakers try to capture the artistic process in their work by making a biography of a famous painter, and this little number was John Huston's attempt, which was rewarded with Oscar nominations and the like because of the subject matter, contemporary minds believing that important subject makes for an important film. There are not so many of the opinion that Moulin Rouge was one of Huston's finest films now, he certainly didn't agree, but that residual respect for the life of one of the great painters of France means that it is returned to by some, hoping to see his paintings and posters brought to life in glorious Technicolor which Huston wisely implemented.
Oswald Morris was his cinematographer, and it had to be said he was the project's most valuable participant, recreating the colours of Toulouse Lautrec's artworks with careful precision: really his efforts crafted something about as close to a work of art as you would get in a production like this. Little wonder the film's fans simply like to watch it for the visual splendour, because it is difficult to believe many watching it for its drama, for a start Huston had to sanitise the biography to comply with the censorship of the day, so that even the Can-Can dancers were covered up as if the atmosphere in the nightclub was somewhat parky and they did not wish to catch a chill.
Also not helping was that almost every character depicted was a right pain in the arse, and that included the artist whose demeanour could best be described as prickly, carrying an enormous chip on his shoulder about his most famous aspect after his artistic ability, which was his short stature. We see the childhood accident that led to his stunted growth in the legs in flashback, where Ferrer played the character's father too, leading to later scenes where they are having conversations looking somewhat absurd as the only thing to distinguish them was their different beards. Thereafter we are asked to accept that Toulouse Lautrec was mad at the world, plonking him into the suffering genius stereotype that was less than satisfying when he was absolutely no fun to spend any time around.
We see his unrequited love for Marie, who may or may not be a lady of the night (they're kind of coy on that matter), played by Colette Marchand who is just as bad-tempered and insufferable as he is, making these scenes with them a real chore to sit through. Later, once she has left him, he hooks up with a Countess (Suzanne Flon) who is more polite, but a cold fish where you cannot understand the attraction there, either. With all that in mind, there were incidentals that made this interesting: a lot of viewers were impressed by the staging of the opening dance sequence, and it is the highlight, a riot of colour and energy - but that's the first twenty minutes, which leaves a very long anti-climax. Horror fans may give this a look because it featured Peter Cushing (credited) and Christopher Lee (uncredited) in their first movie together, but alas, not in the same scene. And Zsa Zsa Gabor fans may appreciate her appearance that in camp fashion has her miming badly to a couple of songs. But Moulin Rouge was a curate's egg overall. Music by Georges Auric.
[Those features on the BFI Blu-ray:
Restored in 4K from the original 35mm nitrate negative
Images of Paris in Silent Film (17mins): a selection or rare early films, spanning the years 1900-1925, reflecting different aspects of life in Lautrec's adopted home, from the vaults of the BFI National Archive
Lightning Sketches: Posters, Printing and Caricatures in Silent Film (21 mins): artists use new cinematic technology to bring their topical cartoons to life in this collection of archival oddities from the earliest days of animation and the popular press
Lautrec (1974, 6 mins): Lautrec's characters dance playfully through this lovely short animated film which celebrates his life and work
Commentary by Angela Allen (2019): the longstanding associate of John Huston and Moulin Rouge script supervisor discusses this film and many others across an eclectic career in this new commentary recorded specifically for this release
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with essays and full film credits.]