The Films of John Huston: Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge was the film I was watching when I abruptly stopped my Huston retrospective over two years ago. I just couldn’t get through the film. But after going through Huston’s autobiography once more, I decided to give it another go.
It opens on the Rouge’s windmill with the Lautrec lettering announcing the year – 1890 – and we’re treated to an impressive, sweeping shot showing the band, the patrons, both upper and lower classes, and, finally, the dancers. Huston doesn’t show the technique; rather he emphasizes the spectacle, not missing any broad kicks and not tying them into any routine either. The cuts are jerky instead of fluid, ending on “No-Bones” Valentin (The Massively Chinned Man).
Valentin kicks his top hat into the crowd, and one of the patron warthogs lights up as though he were hit in the belly, scurries across the floor, and returns the hat. Then it’s on to the Latina dancer, who sneers a gauntlet across the face of her female partner. As the dance continues, they simulataneously play out their catfight while the men try their best to keep them apart, one spinning between the two that may or may not be part of the act.
The dance concludes, and the camera pans over the crowd, gleaning bits of conversation from the high-societeers and low-livers before settling on Lautrec, sketching as furiously as he gulps down glass after glass of brandy. The drawings, which appear frequently throughout the film, were made by Marcel Vertés, an actual Lautrec forger. Several of the bigwigs stop by Toulouse’s table, and we immediately we understand that he’s as much a fixture of the place as the employees.
The two dancers from before stop by as well, and after swapping cognac to the face, the catfight commences with a resounding slap. I don’t know whether it was intentional to make the white woman fight dirty, but the spat is as nasty as almost anything Huston’s done before, yet the crowd’s reaction is merely to laugh as they roll off the screen.
And then it cuts to a song and our lovestruck diva played by Zsa Zsa Gabor. While her performance is dubbed, she nonetheless oozes sex appeal. At 35, Zsa Zsa looks a little old to be the next cinema sexpot, but she’s not old either — somewhere between the up-and-comer and pro.
This is all within the first fifteen minutes, and it has yet to get to the big dance number set, of course, to Offenbach’s can-can. This is as virtuoso as it gets. Three, four, five girls come out, with matching blouses but brilliantly, diversely colored petticoats – red, blue, yellow – Moulin Rouge has been praised for its color, and here it’s easy to see why. Huston noted in his autobiography that this was intentional; he wanted to employ color much as Lautrec had, as well as keep the composition of each image flat. Highlights were removed to dispel depth, and a special filter used to simulate fog was brought in to achieve a monochromatic look. Every frame should look like a painting, and while the quality of this captures is not very good, I think it gets the idea across.
The dance, and Gabor’s solo, are filmed, in contrast to the opening number, with a sense of continuity. Huston hated dancing himself, nevertheless he at least showed an appreciation for it. Anything that let him close up on a whirlwind of derrieres has some merit.
By the end of the sequence, you have more than a feel for the Moulin Rouge, and while it takes up the running time of an entire episode of television, the movie has not even begun. Only once the reveal of Lautrec’s miniscule size as he stands up from the table, can we proceed.
And proceed we do, to Lautrec’s childhood. His father, played as well by Ferrer, gives a recitation of their lineage and titles, and then on to the foxhunt, a spectacle that will be revisited in The List of Adrian Messenger, and finally on to the critical event of Toulouse falling down the stairs, which will render him a cripple for the remainder of his life. For his scenes, Ferrer had special pads made allowing him to walk on his knees while his calves were tied behind. Other shots were performed by dwarves.
Now the film officially begins, and within the next twenty minutes it becomes one of Huston’s most thematically ambitious works, targeting loneliness, art, love, class, fate, and alcoholism. In turn Toulouse becomes one of Huston’s most complex characters, a man just as alienated by his profession as his deformity. His nights are spent drinking and sketching the dancers of the Moulin Rouge, his days producing paintings.
On one fateful stumble home, he runs into Marie Charlet, a streetwalker whose catty personality outdoes his own. She follows him back to his shabby apartment after he rescues her from a nosy policeman, and the two enter into a wholly toxic union. They fight and reconcile, fight and reconcile. He gives her money, she disappears, he takes her out to dinner, she storms off. Fuming at one moment, begging to be taken back the next. From desperation he allows it, until one outburst goes too far and he leaves her for good.
However, like the dancers in the opening scene, as much dislike as there is between them, they need each other — Toulouse for the companionship and Marie for the money. Colette Marchard’s Marie all but spits into the camera lens, yet she sells the character anyway, while Huston and co-writer Anthony Veiller sell the relationship. We know it’s doomed from the start, and the script knows it too by having them reach rock bottom almost instantly. Huston wisely lets Toulouse and Marie make up only half the film, and by the time we see the resolution, we already know it’s coming, but it twists their mutual attacks into self-destruction.
The second half of the film sets Toulouse on his inevitable path of destruction. Just as we can foresee the result of his relationship with Marie, we also know that life cannot end well for Toulouse. Of course, since Toulouse was actually a real person, we’re already aware of his fate. Huston was aware of it, too, and in his first biopic, he brings the theme of fate to the forefront: All Lautrec’s misfortunes seem forced on him, from his accident; his legs’ inability to heal; his muse; and his talent for painting only those far below his official standing. Predetermination is a consistent theme in almost all of Huston’s films whether intentional or not, but Tolouse, so far, is unique. He’s a victim of his nature just as much as Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Rocco, Dobbs, and Rex Handley, but he’s not a villain, and despite his irresponsibility he’s a more sympathetic character.
Nothing he does is outright horrendous, as his violence is directed inward. Sometimes it’s excused by the things he can’t control while others such as his drinking and misanthropy waver between his own choice and inseparable from his art. The film doesn’t provide an answer as to whether Toulouse could have changed the course of his life, and it’s probably because Huston himself didn’t know. Again, I can’t speak for the guy, but there’s a distinct ambiguity between what, if anything, Toulouse can control and what he can’t. In a scene later on, after Toulouse has completed his poster for the Moulin Rouge, his father comes to scold him for producing a work of pornography. He shrugs it off by noting that his talent is confined to painting the lower classes. Later still he defends his drinking as an essential part of his nature. Is he making excuses or does he sincerely believe it? By extension is Huston doing the same?
There’s more than a few parallels between the two — both suffered from childhood illnesses, both came from well-known families, both spent their early lives in Paris as painters, and both were notorious drinkers. But Huston, by his own account, got along famously with his father, was good with women, and stood over six feet. He also lived large but to my knowledge never showed any self-destructive streak. Nevertheless, I think in Lautrec, Huston saw (or imagined) the impulse of the artist, which, for all his shortcomings as a man, can produce something beneficial for the ages.
The theme of the artist and the man is explicitly stated in two scenes, the first early on, when Toulouse meets up with several other Parisian artists (including Georges Seurat, played by a young Christopher Lee). He gets into an argument with a fellow artist over the Louvre and particularly the Mona Lisa. “What makes the Mona Lisa Da Vinci’s? The brass plaque at the bottom – that is what you worship” The work is what’s important, not the man. It’s a topic Woody Allen has explored more than a few times, in Bullets Over Broadway and most recently in Midnight in Paris, and here Huston makes largely the same point: Artists can be dicks. The point is driven home the second time it’s brought up: “One should never meet the person whose work they admire. What they do is always better than what they are.”
Lautrec is as good an example as any — disagreeable and self-absorbed, he doesn’t even notice when the perfect woman comes along. After attempting to kill himself upon discovering the truth about Marie, he’s compelled to return to his poster, and, years later, once again by chance meets up with Myriamme Hamm (Suzanne Flon), who is revealed to be the mistress-presumptive of Marne de la Voisier (Peter Cushing). By now Toulouse is admired throughout Paris, particularly by Hamm, who never disparages his deformity and provides the encouragement he’s desperately wanted.
Again there’s a contrast — Myriamme has worked herself up from poverty to become respectable; Toulouse started out respectable and worked his way down. But Myriamme is more in love with the plaque of Toulouse rather than the actual man. Still, she offers a better relationship than he could find elsewhere. But, burned out from love and insisting that it does not exist, he’s blind to her. His real muse was never a woman anyway — it was the Moulin Rouge.
In fact, the only thing Toulouse does love is the Moulin Rouge — and the Moulin Rouge is a representation of his life — it mirrors every major theme touched upon, from class to spats, to the lovestruck, to even deformities and popularity, art and appreciation. When he finds La Goule wrapping herself around a streetlamp and raving about how she used to be a star, there’s an enormous sense of remorse — thanks to Toulouse’s popularity, the Rouge, like himself, has become respectable — the very plaque in name only, with no place for derelicts like themselves.
I’ve offered a lot of speculation as to what the film means, but one thing I can say with confidence is that this message is clear: Respectability is the death of art.