Henri hangs out at the Moulin Rouge, where he is well-known by the staff and likes to sketch the performers as they dance. (Image via toutlecine.com)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) is a painter living in Paris. Originally born into a family of the French court, Henri moved away from his family in an attempt to find happiness. His legs were badly deformed by a fall in childhood, causing him to have a short stature. His height has been the source of much discrimination by fellow members of the court.

Living on his own, he’s a frequent visitor of the Moulin Rouge, has a drinking problem and likes to draw sketches of the dancers (including Jane Avril, portrayed by Zsa Zsa Gabor). Heading home from the Moulin Rouge one night, Henri meets Marie (Cloette Marchand), a streetwalker who he falls in love with. Their relationship is a tumultuous one, and Marie is likely using Henri for the gifts and money that she’s able to weasel out of him.

Scarred by the relationship and sure that he’ll never find real love, Henri struggles to deal with his personal life, his art and his pushy high-class family (consisting of a worried mother, portrayed by Claude Nollier, and a father who cares only about reputation).

John Huston directs Moulin Rouge, a 1952 fictional account of the life of a real French artist, based on the novel by Pierre La Mure. The film received seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Actor for Jose Ferrer and Best Picture) and took home two trophies on the big night, for Best Art Direction – Set Direction (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color).

(Image via doctormacro.com)

Those awards were certainly deserved: Moulin Rouge is a stunning film in the visual sense. Vibrant colors are used in a wide variety of shades, from bright orange to deep blue. The costumes are fantastic as well – some are understated and some are extravagant, but they’re all beautiful. The use of color captures the excitement of Paris and the Moulin Rouge very well.

In addition to being visually beautiful, the film is also quite moving. A high amount of sympathy is built for Henri right off the bat. He’s been discriminated against and treated very poorly on so many occasions because of his disability. When Marie does show interest in him, she only wants to take advantage of his money, which drums up even more sympathy. I must give Marchand credit – she certainly succeeds in making the audience dislike her, even before her intentions with Henri become completely clear.

The mood of the film is quite sad as a result, and Ferrer’s performance accomplishes both understatement and high emotion. The best things about this film are Ferrer’s performance and the atmosphere built by the combination of great sets, great cinematography and great costuming.

Despite all of his struggles, Henri is a great character because he isn’t willing to just give up and go home. It would be easy to return to the court and let his overbearing mother take care of him, but he wants to truly live, and he wants to keep painting. He’s cynical in terms of love, especially after the Marie debacle – so cynical, in fact, that he is completely oblivious when a woman named Myriamme (Suzanne Flon) truly falls for him. The cynicism over romance is made up for by his determination when it comes to his paintings, which he pours his soul into.

I expected a lot more music, less drama and certainly less sadness going into this film, but these unexpected elements work well because the focus is put on Henri rather than on showy musical numbers. The film seems to have more substance this way. It does drag on a bit, clocking in at around two hours, but in general it’s a very good watch. I also found the ending to be very interesting. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t yet seen the film, the ending is hallucinatory and a bit ambiguous. It left this viewer a bit frazzled.

Moulin Rouge is an engrossing biopic with a very moving lead performance. The score: 3.8/5