Moulin Rouge (1952) – Film Review
Director: John Huston
Cast: José Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Collette Marchand
by Sarah Morgan
There’s no Ewan McGregor or Nicole Kidman here. And as for Kylie Minogue as a fairy – forget it.
Instead, 1952’s Moulin Rouge opts for low-key realism rather than outlandish singing and dancing. In fact, the only things this drama, directed by John Huston, has in common with Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular 2001 musical are the title and setting.
Released in 1952, Huston’s movie is an adaptation of Pierre La Mure’s novel about the life of 19th century artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. How much is true and how much is speculative is up for discussion, but there’s no doubt the story is full of dramatic moments that work well on screen.
The opening scenes reveal in no uncertain terms where we are – Huston delivers an eye-catching recreation of an evening out at the legendary titular nightclub, with dancers made up to look like characters from one of Lautrec’s paintings. It’s an idea that works in long shot, but not in close-up in a glorious 4k restoration – a false chin is particularly obvious!
José Ferrer, fresh from his Oscar-winning success in Cyrano de Bergerac, delivers a moving performance as the aristocrat who, after being crippled in a fall, throws himself into art, but struggles to find success, either professionally or personally. He loves the wrong woman, then, still dealing with a broken heart, seems set to throw away his chance at happiness.
It’s a tragic tale, and if it seems an odd one for Huston to have taken at this point in his career – he was best known at the time for such hard-bitten movies as The Asphalt Jungle, Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and had just released The African Queen – it should be pointed out that art was his first love and that, like Lautrec, had spent time as an artist in Paris, enabling him to add a perhaps unique perspective to the story.
The supporting cast includes Zsa Zsa Gabor and a young, pre-Hammer Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Sadly they don’t share any screen time, but fans will enjoy spotting them in the second of their 22 joint screen credits.
There are plenty of special features, although disappointingly few are directly related to the film. Instead, they are mostly shorts from the BFI archive that help set the scene, having been shot in the early days of cinema.
However, there is a fascinating audio commentary from Huston associate Angela Allen, who was Moulin Rouge’s script supervisor.
· Restored in 4K from the original 35mm nitrate negative
· Images of Paris in Silent Film (17 mins): a selection of 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
· Image gallery
· Illustrated booklet (***first pressing only***) containing an essay by John Oliver, a biography of John Huston by Dr Josephine Botting, notes on the special features and cast and credits
Moulin Rouge is released on Blu-ray by BFI, £22.99