Moulin Rouge: Love on Its Knees


The tagline for this film is mystifying to me. First of all, there is nothing particularly daring or startling about the love story, and secondly it is the most depressing and tiresome part of the film. Still, it comes as no surprise since both parties hook up for many other reasons but love. If you’re willing to put up with the histrionics you may however find that the romance has a ring of truth.

This is the story of the famed Paris artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer) who spends the last years of the 19th century at Moulin Rouge, the Montmartre nightclub, where he empties bottles of cognac and sketches the dancers. He knows everyone there, including the singer Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor). In a flashback sequence, we learn that Henri fell down a flight of stairs when he was 13 and injured his legs to the degree that they wouldn’t heal; as he grew up they remained stunted and he eventually left his privileged life as the son of a count to live as an artist in Paris. Henri was once told that no woman will ever love the cripple that he’s become.

One evening he helps Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand), a streetwalker in trouble with the police, and she follows him home to his apartment. They embark on an awkward love affair because she wants his money and protection and he’s in dire need of female company. Perhaps their relationship could even be labeled as a “romance” in the strict meaning of the word, but their differences and constant quarrels are bound to put an end to it sooner or later…

Delivering lines sarcastically
Not exactly uplifting, huh? This romance takes up a large portion of the screen time and proves how miserable the lives of these people are; it seems as if they actually do fall in love with each other, but Marchand’s performance as Marie is so shrill that any viewer would be hard pressed to understand why Henri finds his moments with her worthwhile. Still, the character of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is more touching than the romance. Ferrer turns him into a man who maintains a charming façade even though his cynicism is only growing stronger. Henri realizes that he’s turned into a cliché – the long-suffering artist who might be famous after his death and thus finds few reasons to stay alive.

Ferrer delivers his lines sarcastically and with some distance; he’s one of the film’s key ingredients and the fact that he suffered a bit in order to create the illusion of being very short (he walked on his knees) might in fact add to his tortured yet dignified appearance. Gabor doesn’t contribute much to the story in spite of her high billing, but she does perform “Where Is Your Heart”, which turned into a hit. The costume design and the art direction were created with the intention of resembling 1890’s style fashion and the now-famous posters and paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec. The twenty-minute opening at Moulin Rouge is memorably vivid and colorful.

The final scene adds a clue to Henri’s personality. As he lies on his deathbed he sees visions of the dancers at Moulin Rouge, a farewell to the people who inspired his art. He may not have been able to dance, but he did manage to charm one person of their kind… Marie. 

Moulin Rouge 1952-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Jack Clayton. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay: John Huston, Anthony Veiller. Novel: Pierre La Mure. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Music: Georges Auric. Song: “The Song from Moulin Rouge (Where Is Your Heart)” (Georges Auric, Jacques Larue, Paul Dehn). Art Direction: Paul Sheriff, Marcel Vertés. Costume Design: Marcel Vertés. Cast: José Ferrer (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/The Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Jane Avril), Suzanne Flon (Myriamme Hayam), Eric Pohlmann, Colette Marchand, Christopher Lee… Peter Cushing.

Oscars: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design.

Last word: “The reason Ozzie [Morris] and I have worked together so often is that we speak in a kind of code. I rarely look through the camera except maybe to check the position of the actors or something like that. Usually I just stand in a certain position and look at Ozzie and he knows exactly what I mean so far as the set-up is concerned. Words are rarely necessary with us. And there’s hardly room for misunderstanding that way.” (Huston, “John Huston: Interviews”)



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