Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge (1952)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Jose Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Suzanne Flon, Collette Marchand, Theodore Bikel
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Perhaps one of the most personal films in director John Huston’s canon, 1952’s "Moulin Rouge" captures the severe romanticism of fin de siecle Paris and the legendary artistry of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with such verve and delicacy that it’s easy to forget that the film was made from an American filmmaker borne of the old Hollywood studio system.

Following up his Oscar winning performance in 1950’s "Cyrano De Bergerac, " Jose Ferrer portrays the physically stunted, emotionally tortured artist (interestingly, another role examining physical "ugliness" versus inner beauty).
In Huston’s and co-scenarist Anthony Veiller’s biographical adaptation, Lautrec’s artistic genius feeds off the years of incessant judgment from an unsympathetic society and an accumulation of self-loathing, made easier and harder from equal doses of cognac and self-pity. When true loves eventually appears in the form of the understanding Myriamme Hyamm (Suzanne Flon), Lautrec’s inner demons may have already doomed him to loneliness…and assured him a place among the greatest artists of all time.

Huston’s cynicism might have seemed too harsh to create a world as delicate as turn-of-the-century Paris, but he perfectly captures the environs of the suffering artist. There’s even Zsa Zsa Gabor as the star chanteuse Jane Avril. (Long before "Queen of Outer Space" and the Beverly Hills Police Department, Zsa Zsa was a knockout!) Modern audiences might snicker at Lautrec’s never ending flow of self-deprecating jabs and, like Cher slapping Nicolas Cage in "Moonstruck," implore the whining artist to "snap out of it!"

Focusing more on the artist than the location, as in Baz Luhrmann’s manic revisionist musical version, Huston’s colorful, pessimistic portrait of Lautrec’s genius was realized with an astonishing team of collaborators including cinematographer Oswald Morris, camera operator Freddie Francis, special color consultant Eliot Eliofson, composer Georges Auric and associate producer Jack Clayton. The result was seven Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, winner of two (for Best Color Art Direction and Color Costumes) and a deserved reputation as one of the most gorgeous looking films ever made. If you can suspend disbelief for a time when gentleman helped ladies out of horse-drawn carriages and compliments were an art form, then you’ll really get into the groove of what this "Moulin Rouge" has to say about what fuels love and creation, and sometimes how one does not lead to the other.

MGM Home Entertainment has just released the 1952 classic to DVD. The full-frame transfer really is a knockout, every bit respectful of the material. Colors are not only vivid, they blaze and yet, they are saturated and at times diffused and muted…just like a Lautrec painting. Yup, it’s intentional. Details like red feathers on a white hat and the fine checker pattern on Lautrec’s tweed coat come through clear and distinct. Shadow detail is a little wanting in nighttime scenes and fleshtones occasionally appear slightly ruddy, but these are nitpicks. The source print looks like it underwent some restoration or cleaning because it is practically immaculate. Compression and digital artifacts are nil, even during smoky interior scenes. This is a visual presentation that had me saying "Wow! Look at those colors!" quite a few times.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono audio doesn’t have the same sparkle as the transfer, but what’s there works. The soundtrack naturally doesn’t boast wide dynamic range, but the dialogue is clean and clear, the music doesn’t overwhelm the dialogue and analog hiss has been kept to a minimum. Levels are a little low, though. I had to kick up my receiver a good four to five notches above the usual volume level for mono movies.

The only extra is a decent-looking theatrical trailer, presented in full-frame with mono sound and some nicely themed menus.

There are moments during John Huston’s "Moulin Rouge" where one can see the seeds of Baz Luhrmann’s "Moulin Rouge." I would even go so far as to say that they make excellent bookends when it comes to films of the same subject. Still, I have to give the nod to Huston, Ferrer and company and their Lautrec, portrayed not as a comedic dwarf sidekick, but as a man who could not reconcile the physical with the ethereal. All that, an awesome transfer and a purchase price of $10. What are you waiting for?