Vet stage director Roger Planchon paints the short eventful life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with strangely anemic strokes in this lavish, well-cast but emotionally inert costumer. Art direction is uniformly splendid, with many of the characters familiar from Lautrec’s posters, sketches and oils made flesh in pitch-perfect settings. Overlong pic strives to be as buoyant and racy as a cancan dancer but feels more like an anvil landing on a souffle. Subject matter should facilitate offshore sales before pic settles into quality tube dates and video shelves.
The only son born to aristocratic first cousins (Claude Rich, Anemone) in the town of Albi, Henri is seen within the first 10 minutes as a newborn with an unexplained bone deficiency and an adult (Regis Royer) with pince-nez, full beard and painter’s easel. His dad is a well-heeled womanizer, his beloved mom devoutly religious. And Henri? Well, Henri is sweet as can be but awfully short.
Script glosses over what, exactly, is responsible for Lautrec’s diminutive stature, as if viewers already know or it would be rude to pry. Rarely photographed from the knees down, Royer is a dead ringer for Lautrec, and plays him with a constant impish sparkle in the eyes and playful crinkle around the mouth.
In Paris, Lautrec undergoes ritual hazing before being accepted into the Beaux-Arts painting classes taught by Cormon; makes friends with other young men who prefer renegade Impressionists to old-school fuddy-duddies; is deflowered by an accommodating artist’s model and embarks on a lovey-dovey, then tempestuous affair with fellow painter Suzanne Valadon (Elsa Zylberstein).
Although sincerely smitten by Lautrec, the headstrong Suzanne fears that Henri’s style will exert too strong a pull on her own work. When she leaves him for good, Henri hits the absinthe, contracts venereal disease and embarks on an ill-defined decline toward death — at age 37, like his pal Van Gogh — that takes forever and a day to play out onscreen.
Tedious when it should be enthralling, pic is a succession of more or less interesting incidents, too few of which illuminate the characters. Aristide Bruant (Jean-Marie Bigard) sings his famous songs at Le Chat Noir and wears his famous cape; La Gouloue bitches about how she looks in Lautrec’s celebrated poster of her at the Moulin Rouge; Van Gogh clomps around with fire in his eyes; Degas pops by Lautrec’s studio and approves of his work; and Suzanne poses for Auguste Renoir. Every so often a batch of people are shown relishing nature or night life.
Thesps are good across the board, and music is true to the period, if a tad obvious. The widescreen cinematography makes the most of splashy period decor but lacks inspiration, except in scenes drawn directly from Lautrec’s images or the stylings of the Impressionists. (Pic shows relatively few examples of his art.)
John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge” (1952) depicted a moody, conflicted artist troubled by his infirmity and demanding about every aspect of the printing of his posters. Here, he’s a basically jolly fellow who’s fond of the bottle and is often seen behind an easel when he’s not boyishly telling prostitutes how beautiful they are, politely cajoling loose women into posing for him or hiding out in a den of lesbians.