Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 18, No. 7. June 10, 1954
Films . . . . . . by Ian Rich — Moulin Rouge
Films . . . . . . by Ian Rich
John Huston claims in the preface to his film that Toulouse-Lautrec and his beloved city shall live again. This, for any director, is a big boast to make; and it must be admitted that Huston only half-succeeds. Toulouse-Lautrec's beloved city—with its dark alleys, Montmartre cabarets and its River Seine—does for two brief hours come to life; but Toulouse-Lautrec himself (as played by Jose Ferrer) and the main characters in his story definitely do not.
The film's first quarter-hour in the Moulin Rouge is brilliant. Through the haze of smoke we sec the lively dance of the can-can the cognac fighting of the "premier dansers," the pulsating Parisian crowd mad for escape and excitement. We see come to life what we have seen before in Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings—the oddly-shaped noses, the black top hats, the green-tinted flesh. The technicolor camera gives us the soulless vitality of the garish and nocturnal scene, recreating brilliantly the colour and outline of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings.
For recapturing the character and atmosphere in photography of a painter's work, Huston and his technicians deserve top honours. Never has technicolor been more imaginatively used. Huston, the technician is supreme. But where is Huston the dramatist (He helped write the script), the story teller? Where is the vital art of the biographer? It is there, perhaps, but only very little of it. Never has there been so much technical virtuosity signifying nothing. There are many long fade-outs but not as many climaxes to justify them. The film plods along with too many chances of exciting cinema missed. There are some brilliant incidental shots—a drunken woman on the steps of a church, prostitutes peering out of windows—but these only tend to emphasise the drabness and emptiness of the main theme. The director gives us many held close-ups of faces that say absolutely nothing, a suicide scene dull in its exaggerated under-statement. Huston, I am afraid, has lost his grip. He emerges no better than his disjointed script which is untrue to life and puzzling in some of Its unimaginative changes of emphasis. Curiously enough. Huston's old style as a director was not unlike Toulouse-Lautrcc's as a painter. But, alas, in his hour of need Huston's conciseness, terseness and deft strokes of characterisation desert him.
He is not well served by his actors. Jose Ferrer given us a tired, uncomplicated Toulouse-Lautrec, monotonous in his volee, and slow and comparatively unruffled in temperament. Gone is the painter's fierce appetite for work and life, his mad enthusiasm to capture in canvas the fascinating low-life of Montmatre. The Toulouse-Lautrec of the film has no bubbling high spirits, no popularity that the original's facetious talk gave him. (Where is the artistic temperament, the high-pitched life with his fellow artists?) We are shown bitterness in his love life but never very clearly why it was there. . . . Often any resemblance be tween the script and Jose Ferrer's performance is purely coincidental. "Why do I get so mad?" "Curiosity is my cardinal weakness," says Toulouse-Lautrec. "That's interesting." says Jose Ferrer and passively, with a dignified reserve, throws the lines to the audience.
Ferrer and Huston cut each other's throats. An occasional director's device is weakened by Ferrer's performance, while Ferrer's performance in moments when it may begin to bloom, is frustrated by the director's lack of understanding. Collette Marchand as Mane and Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril, however, cut their own throats. Their performances stand brilliantly in their own right as amateurish. The actress who played Miriam appealed to me, as did some of the supporting players. Or was it the brilliance and the imagination of the photography that covered their lack of the same qualities?
Henri de Toulouse-[unclear: Lautitc] and John Huston—romantic-reallsts. Huston the romantic-reallst director of photography succeeds: Huston the romantic-realist director of character and incident gives us unimaginative romanticism-realism and falls. Huston is (I hope only temporarily) my fallen idol.