The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925) A Silent Film Review

After a bitter breakup, a well-heeled Parisian heads to the Moulin Rouge for drinking, dancing—and a literal out-of-body experience. Separated from his corporeal self, he sets about making mischief but things take a turn for the grisly when his lifeless body is found and scheduled for autopsy.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the Angers Nantes Opéra

I forbid to show this film.

What do you call a melodrama-fantasy-science-fiction-horror-comedy mashup? I am not sure but that’s what The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge set out to be. Risky? To be sure, but the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

This is going to be interesting because I must confess that René Clair’s silent work has never quite connected with me, despite his affinity for science fiction and comedies of manners. There is a remoteness to it and a coldness that prevents any kind of investment. However, Clair’s most famous Hollywood work, I Married a Witch, follows similar fantastical lines to The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, so perhaps this will be the film that wins me over.

Our hero in the flesh.

The hero of the picture is the wealthy and influential Julien Boissel (Georges Vaultier), who is secretly engaged to Yvonne Vincent (Sandra Milovanoff). However, Yvonne’s father is being blackmailed by corrupt newspaper mogul Gauthier (José Davert): either he is given Yvonne’s hand in marriage or he will expose Vincent’s traitorous past and he has the documents to prove it.

Yvonne breaks up with Julien, who in turn goes on a bender at the Moulin Rouge cabaret. He is spotted by Dr. Robini (Paul Ollivier), who has been lurking about the place looking for just the right person to assist him with his experiments…

A grim discovery.

Some days pass. Julien has disappeared and ghostly mischief is afoot in Paris. Objects disappear and reappear at random. A phantom seems to be stalking the city in general and the Moulin Rouge in particular. Only the reporter Degland (Albert Préjean), who works for Gauthier’s paper, has a hunch that these events are connected and his suspicions are confirmed when he breaks into the home of Dr. Robini and discovers the lifeless body of Julien.

But it is not murder, as Degland suspects. Rather, Robini has been experimenting with separating the spiritual from the physical, allowing Julien to abandon his body and roam Paris as a phantom. Julien likes his new life so much that he refuses to return, despite Robini’s pleading.

Yup, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation…

Degland doesn’t believe him—would you?—and goes to the police. And so, Robini is under arrest for murder, Degland is no closer to solving the mystery, Yvonne is still in melodramatic peril and Julien’s body is about to be autopsied, damning him to wandering as a phantom forever. Quite a pickle, eh?

Well. That was certainly a mixed bag. The number one issue that stands in the way of its success is its pacing. I have quite a bit of patience for European dawdling over sets and costumes and I loved the lengthy and indulgent Moulin Rouge nightclub scenes. Alas, the pacing issues have more to do with far less interesting matters.

They really can can-can.

Basically, the film spends its first 35 minutes on a hoary “You must pay the rent, I can’t pay the rent” scenario. Lovely young heroine blackmailed into marrying a nasty villain in order to save her family? Yawn. To make matters worse, neither Julien nor Yvonne have any distinct character traits outside of their melodramatic predicament. Their personalities are summed up utterly as the Boy and the Girl.

(Compare this to The Girl Behind the Counter, which featured a plot every bit as shelf-worn but was saved from boredom thanks to the appealing performances of the stars and the liveliness of the characters.)

Nothing keeps Degland from his scoops.

Gregory Mason, who interviewed Clair about the film in 1979, stated that he felt the character of Degland the reporter was the only one in the film with some kind of moral spine, even if he lacked manners and tact. The rest of the characters remained self-absorbed, which would not have been a flaw in itself but the film was designed as a melodrama and not a study of unlikable characters. The question of likeability depends very much on genre and context. (Clair had no comment on the matter.)

Robini may not have actually murdered Julien but seeking out an emotionally vulnerable subject for a dangerous experiment is highly unethical. Julien is a moping, humorous stick-in-the-mud throughout the early part of the film. Vincent claims that his daughter had a choice in the matter of marriage but he emotionally blackmails her into acquiescing. Yvonne is a dull, weeping dishrag. Degland is the only character with anything resembling a character arc and his nervy code of ethics makes him a far more appealing hero. Mason was spot-on in his assessment.

A ghostly tour of Paris.

The moment the Phantom appears, however, everything perks up and the film comes to life. Those should have been the opening scenes of the picture: comedic mischief from an unseen entity that baffles police and reporters alike. The back story could have been filled in by Degland’s investigation. In fact, the first three reels of the film could have hacked off and you would barely miss them if title cards paper over the gaps in the plot.

Degland-type characters were wildly popular during the silent era. A brash, classless but ultimately good egg reporter? You can find them in films like The Power of the Press and Nedbrudte Nerver, both highly enjoyable.

Our bickering duo.

Another element of the film that works is the bickering between Julien and Robini as it becomes clear that the experiment has gone wrong. I would happily watch an entire film with the two of them squabbling like an old married couple while Degland pursues them in search of a scoop.

And that’s another issue: the film switches tone, mood and genre with whiplash-inducing rapidity. Again, I do love a good genre mashup, especially horror-comedy, but such mashups need to be carefully considered. The Cat and the Canary, for example, cracks jokes at a rapid pace but not while Tully Marshall is being throttled or a clawed hand is going for Laura La Plante’s throat. It’s like music: there must be rhythm and punctuation, not multiple different songs playing at once with no plan.

Haunting the Moulin Rouge.

And there clearly was no plan. The film does not establish any rules for Julien interacting with the corporeal world. I am not saying I wanted interminable title cards explaining how it all works, just some clarity on what, exactly, he can and cannot do. One minute, he is stealing multiple heavy fur coats from the Moulin Rouge hat check, throwing books, panicking an entire police meeting with his antics and even appearing before and physically fighting Robini. The next, he is unable to get Vincent’s attention and, worse, that of the doctors performing his autopsy.

This would not have been difficult to clear up. In fact, Clair easily establishes that an autopsy will be fatal to Julien in his phantom form. We see the horror on his face, the word autopsy jumps out at us, he grasps his body, realizing that he cannot return to a filleted corpse. The film also clearly shows us that both Julien and Robini must work together to separate and reunite the spiritual and physical forms and we see Julien’s frenzied attempts to reenter his body solo.

Haunting a dada club, as one does.

A similar scene showing that interacting with the physical world is exhausting or that he can only touch certain types of objects or something would have worked wonders in establishing the film’s internal logic and harmony. Instead, the rules seem to change depending on the scene.

However, the autopsy scene itself is very good old-fashioned suspense, with Julien looking on helplessly (even if that helplessness is contradictory) while the coroner slices into his flesh. Brrr! It makes me wish everything else about the film had been better because the potential is there. The phantom scenes range from silly to atmospheric but the playfulness is welcome. The nightclub scenes are dynamic and I loved Degland’s Douglas Fairbanks-esque acrobatics as he investigates Julien’s “murder.”

Breaking and entering for fun and profit.

And all of this is enhanced by the beautiful tints of the print and the oh so modern score included in the version that I watched. In fact, I suspect that if this had been cut down to two or three reels of surreal phantom antics, I might have enjoyed the whole thing immensely.

Clair himself did not think much of the film and expressed relief that it had been lost. When he was informed by Mason in 1979 that a print had survived, his response was, “It was very bad. Alright, I forbid to show this film.”

Our sad sack heroine and dad.

Now, this kind of response should be taken with a grain of salt. A great many silent era directors and performers dismissed their own work as bad as a kind of defense mechanism at a time when silent films were looked down on. Clair was sometimes criticized for never having left the silent era and The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge was not a hit. Is it a masterpiece? Assuredly not. But there are some bones of a very good sci-fi/fantasy/horror picture in there and at least its bad elements are bad in an interesting way.

So, all in all, The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge is a very, very mixed bag. The first three reels can be skipped with almost no narrative consequence as long as you know the heroine is being blackmailed into marriage because the villain has documents that would incriminate her father. However, the finale is good, pulpy, suspenseful fun and quite a few of the comedy scenes really do work, just not where they are placed in the film.

Our real hero.

Your mileage will definitely vary but if you’re still interested after reading this review, I think it is very likely that you will find something to enjoy.

Where can I see it?

Stream courtesy of the Angers Nantes Opéra, which uses a beautiful tinted Lobster Films print. As you might expect from an opera company, their score does contain vocal music and it is extremely modern to boot, with electric guitars and ambient soundscapes. I am extremely liberal with silent film scores and have zero issues with this. In fact, I liked it. However, I realize that many prefer more traditional music, so, like the film it accompanies, it’s not for everyone.


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