Certainly one of the most beautiful ghost stories filmed in Technicolor ("The Innocents," with Deborah Kerr, perhaps takes the prize for black and white.) "Moulin Rouge" the film is itself the ghost of Lautrec's life and art. An almost minimalist script (minimalist writing being as daring for mainstream Hollywood in 1952 as the Can-Can was for fin de siecle Paris) supports and moves us through the exhilarating three-dimensional world of Lautrec's paintings come to life.
Meticulous production design, set decoration and even costumes were created by Marcel Vertes (whose hands can be seen sketching for Jose Ferrer in closeup). Schiaparelli designed Zsa Zsa Gabor's costumes. Oswald Morris lit and photographed the sumptuous sets. The synthesis of these artists miraculously captures the essence of Lautrec's art -- yet still is but a ghost of his "real" world and life.
Each scene plays like one of Lautrec's sketches or paintings: not an extraneous line or element . . . seemingly simple and obvious, yet rich and deep and true. The artful script is credited to Anthony Veiller and John Huston from Pierre La Mure's novel (a ghost of a life in words alone).
Collette Marchand as the prostitute, Marie Charlet, with whom Lautrec falls in love, gives one of the most indelible and convincing performances ever captured -- almost as if Huston had found a turn-of-the-century French "child of the gutters" who happened to be a brilliant actress, instead of vice versa. Tempestuous, vulnerable, enchanting, exasperating, transparent -- Marie is a phantom of love; not the real thing. A poor uneducated child adopting the guise of the only kind of "woman" she knows. Ultimately a sham. A pretend woman. Self-destructive and destroying. Offering the only thing she knows: not real love.
Jose Ferrer beautifully underplays Lautrec and keeps his inner pain to a barely repressed minimum, except for brief, sardonic, telling outbursts. He is, after all, almost continually anesthetized by cognac and absinthe. Not once, as the artist or the actor, does Ferrer seek our pity or sympathy. His Lautrec is a ghost of a man, haunting the fringes of the demi-monde, then, after his success as an artist, able to connect with others only superficially -- until it's too late and he loses the genuine love of Miriamme (Suzanne Flon) because he can't see it. She too is a kind of ghost.
On his deathbed, in Huston's vision, Lautrec is visited by the dance hall ghosts of his beloved Moulin Rouge, the legendary club that still exists in Paris, in a surprisingly moving finale.
Zsa Zsa Gabor looks, on first glance, impossibly beautiful. Turns out she's just impossible: she can't act, can't lip-synch, can't simulate dancing, can't even move gracefully. Though carefully costumed, for the most part, the unfortunate "serpentine" gown Schiaparelli designed for Gabor's second number as Jane Avril reveals hips already as wide as a barn. (These used to be called "child-bearing hips." Though Gabor may seem silly as a Hollywood personality, she was smart enough to marry Conrad Hilton and give him a daughter, Francesca, thus assuring her financial well-being in perpetuity. And she and her "franchise," such as it is, have outlived everybody else connected with this production.) Miss Gabor's singing voice is dubbed by Muriel Smith, the first black opera singer to perform Carmen at Covent Garden. She appears in "Moulin Rouge" as the black Can-Can dancer, dancing up a storm and leaping into catfights at the drop of a petticoat.
George Auric's atmospheric score is also a triumph of mood and character: what Lautrec might have written himself were he a composer.
Nothing, really, is as it appears in "Moulin Rouge." It's not "really" Lautrec's story, but "impressions" of it. The production design, sets and costumes aren't "really" Lautrec in three dimensions, but shadows of his soul and world. Inordinately tall actor Jose Ferrar portrays the 5'1" Lautrec. Hungarian courtesan Zsa Zsa Gabor (birth nose fortunately cosmetically altered while a teenager) portrays French chanteuse Jane Avril -- with vocals provided by a black American opera singer who relocated to London. Some of the accents are real, most are not. Two French bit parts are played by Christopher Lee (uncredited) and Peter Cushing, Britishers who would go on to revolutionize horror movies in the '60's with their Hammer Film shockers. Even artist Marcel Vertes, so responsible for the look of "Moulin Rouge" actually began his career as a forger of Lautrec works.
Yet if nothing is "real" here, one finally must ask if the ghosts and demons that haunt us all, to some degree, as they do Lautrec and everyone else in this film, aren't "real" after all.
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