René Clair's ghost comedy begins melodramatically, with the story of a young man who seeks the hand of a politician's daughter in vain. But when a mysterious doctor frees the spirit of the despairing young man from his body, the film takes a fantastic turn. From then on, the lover wreaks havoc on Paris in the form of an invisible phantom. With double exposures and imaginative tricks, Clair successfully capitalizes on the surreal, Dadaistic undertones of the story. Everything culminates in a breakneck chase through the streets of Paris.
Made under better technical conditions than either of the preceding pictures, LE FANTÔME DU MOULIN-ROUGE was notable for the various uses Clair made of the camera’s resources, sometimes “giving objects a three-dimensional effect by moving round them” (J. Bourgeois). The story shows how the disembodied spirit of a man disappointed in love consoles himself by playing pranks on his acquaintances at favourite old haunts, like the Moulin Rouge, and has a fine time until he discovers that his love is after all reciprocated – when his one wish is to become reincarnated. So a twist, typical of Clair’s fantasies, turns an extraordinary advantage – the invisible hero’s ubiquity – into a handicap and, before the story ends, reconciles him to his ordinary state.
Catherine de la Roche: René Clair. London 1958
I think that the subject of a film should be above all visual … LE FANTÔME DU MOULIN-ROUGE is a fantastic story based on superimposition, a wonderful means of expression thanks to which reality and dreams can be merged.
René Clair: Manifesto, 1924
Like PARIS QUI DORT (Bonner Sommerkino 2016), LE FANTÔME DU MOULIN-ROUGE was a modern Paris-set fantasy, but its tone was more dour, its gags less spontaneous, and its plotting more mechanically melodramatic. In its time, the film impressed critics with its many trick shots and double exposures, used to visualize the hero’s ethereal state as he hovers over traffic on the Grands Boulevards or slips into interiors, private and public. The plot itself seemed a new twist on Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Wells’ “The Invisible Man”. One of the film’s highlights remains the sequence at the Moulin Rouge (recreated in the studio by Robert Gys), when the film suddenly comes to life after some particularly laborious exposition. The virtuosity of the rhythmic montage of chorines and the crescendo of intercutting reflect the influence of the tavern dance in the recently released Alexandre Volkoff film KEAN (itself influenced, of course, by Gance’s LA ROUE). “LE FANTÔME DU MOULIN-ROUGE,” wrote American Clair biographer Celia McGerr, “contains some of the best and the worst of Clair during this period. But ... when he breaks from the narrative and concentrates on the image, the film awakens and ‘pure cinema’ appears.”
Lenny Borger, Le Giornate del Cinema muto, Pordenone 2004