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Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a gifted artist who lives as an outcast due to his physical deformity in late nineteenth century Paris, finds an artistic home at the famous cabaret in Montmarte. The movie chronicles his struggle to become a recognized artist, as well as his thwarted search for love.
Winner of 2 OSCARS: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design
Nominated for 5 more OSCARS: Best Actor (José Ferrer), Best Supporting Actress (Colette Marchand), Best Director, Best Editor, Best Picture
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This 1952 drama directed and co-written by John Huston is not to be confused with the 2001 Baz Lurhmann musical of the same name. Toulouse-Lautrec plays only a small, and mainly comic role in the latter film. Huston's movie is devoted to him and his work and is more than just a standard biopic.
Despite the eclectic nature of John Huston's moviemaking choices, his range extended after all from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Beat the Devil, from The African Queen to Moby Dick and beyond, certain themes reasserted themselves consistently. Huston was drawn to stories about the capricious cruelty hidden in human nature. The ceaseless search for wealth is a stalwart theme for him. However, greed as a theme, is often combined with an awareness of his characters sometimes violent efforts to achieve an ideal they're struggling toward. ItŐs not hard to understand then why Huston was attracted to the figure of Toulouse-Lautrec.
The film works because John Huston and his co-writer, Anthony Veller, are not primarily concerned with the external progress of Lautrec's career, of how he became a 'hit' in the Paris art world. It's his psychological and emotional journey they dramatize.
The movie starts with a reenactment of a floor show at the Moulin Rouge in which Huston establishes a very specific feel for the period that is a highlight of the film. For fans of the 2001 Luhrmann film, there is none of its post-modern sensibility where late 20th century pop music and choreography are layered over period costumes and story and MTV style editing connects them all. Huston's camera stays mainly in long shot viewing the performance of the can-can as though it were a patron sitting ringside, or Lautrec himself, who sits quietly quickly sketching the scene in front of him. Huston allows the dancers their star turns, but never breaks the spell of the period. With the exception of a brief flashback sequence that depicts how Lautrec became crippled as a child, the movie maintains its focus on LautrecŐs existence between the cabaret and his solitary life driven by his attempt to break free of his loneliness.
Carrying the weight of the picture is a very strong performance from Jose Ferrer. Ferrer was largely known as a highly articulate, verbal actor, famous for his lyrical vocal work as Cyrano de Bergerac both on stage and in the screen version from 1950. The part of Lautrec was very physically demanding, however, requiring the actor to bind his legs painfully behind him when he had to be seen walking in long shot. But the power of FerrerŐs work in this film is often in LautrecŐs silences. Ferrer communicates the intensity of the loneliness and isolation Lautrec is subject to because of his deformity through an alert and intense stillness. Both Huston and Ferrer seem aware that an artistŐs life is really that of an observer. He exists to reflect back to the world what moves him. This fact often makes it difficult to dramatize an artistŐs existence, but thankfully the setting of the Moulin Rouge has so much visual and dramatic potential that Ferrer can afford to do the quiet and delicate work he does here.
The other actors largely match this spirit of authenticity. Kathleen Kath, the French actress who plays La Goulue, is vivid as the haughty premier dancer of the Moulin Rouge who descends into alcoholism. As a woman of the street with whom Lautrec attempts to establish a relationship, Colette Marchand is, by turns, both moving and fierce as the capricious object of his affections. Marchand received an Academy Award nomination for her work. Zsa Zsa Gabor, however, cannot help being Zsa Zsa Gabor. No matter how much she is swathed in period clothing the viewer still suspects that she is really off to a Beverly Hills dinner party circa 1952. She plays only a small part though, and certainly does not spoil the overall experience of the picture.