This is my contribution to the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Paula’s Cinema Club and Outspoken and Freckled. Be sure to check out the other contributions; it’s a fabulous celebration of everything pertaining to the Academy.
Moulin Rouge and Moulin Rouge! are separated by a lot more than 49 years and a well-placed exclamation mark. The former, directed by John Huston and released in 1952, explores the life of Paris-based artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and is based on the novel by Pierre La Mure whilst the Baz Luhrmann-directed, exclamation-point added cinematic extravaganza focuses on a love story between an aspiring writer and a beautiful courtesan. Both films are rich, incredibly visual, and assault the viewer’s senses, albeit in different ways.
Huston tasked Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon with replicating the flattened colour palette Toulouse-Lautrec used in his paintings and authorised extensive experimentation with Technicolor, which was overseen by director of photography Oswald Morris. According to Huston’s biography, Morris used individualized colored lights; chosen for each main character to illustrate his mood – José Ferrer was shot in a blue-green filter, Colette Marchand in purple and Suzanne Flon in a pink fill light. According to Bosley Crowther (film critic at the New York Times), Huston “brilliantly accomplished what emerges unquestionably to be the most vivacious and exciting illustration of bohemian Paris ever splashed upon the screen…the eyes are played upon with colors and forms and compositions in a pattern as calculated as a musical score.”
Hungarian costume designer Marcel Vertès was responsible for the costumes (with the exception of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s, who were designed by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli) and the set, and even provided all of the sketches used in the film. If that makes him sound like a multi-tasker, that’s because he was; the Academy obviously agreed, awarding the Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design (in the colour category) to him in 1953.
Indeed, that’s one of the similarities between the two films. Long-time Luhrmann collaborator (also, his wife) Catherine Martin created the sets and costume for the Moulin Rouge! ‘world’; the Academy also rewarded her efforts with a Best Costume Design Oscar. Martin’s Moulin combines 1890s Parisian bohemia with the glamour of 1930s musicals (there’s a bit of pop culture thrown in for good measure too, this is Luhrmann after all!) This artificiality and somewhat contrived aesthetic works in the film’s favour, and make the somewhat limited plot – which involves characters breaking into song – more believable.
The costumes follow the same train of thought. Satine, ‘The sparkling diamond’ (Nicole Kidman) is the most beautiful woman at the Moulin Rouge; the one all the men (including The Duke, played by Richard Roxburgh) comes to see. Her look – tumbling auburn locks, translucent white skin and red lips – borrows heavily from the classic screen goddess ‘look’ popularised by Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe. Like them, Satine is beautiful but seeming untouchable and sexually unavailable. Her clothing, too, wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Ziegfeld set; in her opening number she wears a black and silver sequin bodysuit paired with fishnets, black silk gloves and a top hat and then a spectacular flesh-coloured bodice replete with gold fringing and an extravagant marabou feather train. Hardly historically accurate – in 19th century Paris, a look like that would have required a knitted body undersuit. Practical, but not alluring – and certainly unecessary in Luhrmann and Martin’s world.
Other key looks for Satine include a red satin bustle dress, complete with constricting corset lacing, an elaborate Indian-inspired headdress with intricate beading, and a wonderful (also Indian-influenced) ‘wedding dress’. The floor-length strapless design has a gathered section across one hip and an intricately embroidered bodice. The Indian inspiration came directly from Martin’s travels; in fact the idea for Moulin Rouge! came was sparked when the duo were in India working on a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and went to see a Bollywood movie. There are elements of Bollywood in the cinematic scope of the film; indeed the play that Christian (Ewan McGregor) writes is set in India and includes a penniless sitar player and an evil maharajah.
Returning to Vertès and Huston’s Moulin Rouge, one thing stands out: the lack of flesh on display. The Can-Can dancers are covered from head to toe – long sleeved, white cotton shirts – detailed with more ruffles or contrast piping – were tucked into full skirts, underneath which were ruffled petticoats and bloomers and opaque black tights. The only visible ‘flesh’ was at the wrist; clearly the can-can cover up was solely to appease censors, who were concerned about the immoral implications of scantily attied dancers. Despite this, the American Legion still deemed it necessary to ban the film before its release – although that was lifted after Huston met with its leaders.
As previously mentioned, whilst Vertès was responsible for the overall ‘look’, Schiaparelli designed Gabor’s wardrobe. The two had a longer working relationship, as Vertès had provided illustrations for many of the fashion designer’s perfumes, his whimsical illustrations were the perfect complement for her avant-garde style and irreverent attitude. Zsa Zsa Gabor plays Jane Avril, a real-life can-can dancer, and many of her costumes are directly inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and posters of and for the Moulin Rouge. Like Satine, her first look sets her apart from the other dancers. The off-shoulder shirt, with oversize puff sleeves and the large hat (topped with a vivid orange feather) ties under the chin with a black chiffon bow is much more elaborate and refined and shows more flesh – clearly ladies were allowed to flash it, commoners weren’t.
Some of Gabor’s other outfits are pure Schiap, including a bright red satin dress with a large pink chiffon bow decorating one shoulder, and a fitted black number complete with a red tulle hem and an embellished snake which winds up Gabor’s body. In fact, this design was taken directly from one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s illustrations. The dress is an important plot driver too – when Avril goes to a fitting for it, Lautrec (Ferrer) accompanies her. Whilst here, she introduces him to fit model Myriamme (played by Suzanne Flon) – a woman that Lautrec has met before. This meeting sets a chain of events in motion that (in the movie at least) lead to the artist’s death and bind tragedy into the story of the Moulin Rouge.
In fact, this is one of the main similarities between the two films. Both are ultimately tragic – Huston’s perhaps more so because it functions much more as a biopic – and depict largely lonely characters who rely on spectacle, theatre (and in the case of Huston’s Lautrec) alcohol to follow the Bohemian code of Truth, Freedom and Beauty. But although Luhrmann embraces tragedy, he disguises it with glitz, glamour and fantasy, his Moulin Rouge! is not grounded in the real world but is built from and around hyper-real snapshots of it. Huston’s Moulin Rouge comes from Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings; the tragedy is rooted in one, increasingly embittered, individual’s inability to embrace love – the guiding force of Bohemia eludes him, and he pays the ultimate price.