Based on Pierre La Mure’s biographical novel, a deformed and alcoholic painter finds success in his art while realizing his chances for passionate love are nil.
At the Moulin Rouge in Paris in 1890 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) sketches dancers and drinks cognac. La Goulue (Katherine Kath) and Aicha (Muriel Smith) fight. Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gabor) sings “It’s April Again.” She says that Henri is too short. After the Can-can, everyone leaves, Henri last. He recalls his boyhood in his father’s mansion. He falls down stairs, and his legs stop growing. Denise de Frontenac refuses to marry a cripple. Henri leaves his mother to paint in Paris.
On the street Henri helps Marie Charlet (Colette Marchand) escape from police Sgt. Patou (Georges Lannes), and she asks to stay with him. She takes a bath, and Henri gives her money for a dress. Henri talks with artists. At home he asks Marie where she was last night. She realizes that he is in love with her. They kiss. Henri paints her portrait. They quarrel over money. He wants to care for her, and they go out. Marie is impatient and leaves. Henri won’t let her in and watches her go away.
Henri’s mother (Claude Nollier) visits him, and he tells her about Marie. She asks him to come home. Henri looks for Marie and finds her drinking; she insults him. At home he turns on the gas to die but goes back to painting and changes his mind.
Henri takes a painting to the Moulin Rouge for a month of drinks. He helps to produce the posters. Sgt. Patou asks him to paint his daughter’s portrait, and Henri buys a push-cart for Marie.
Henri’s father (Jose Ferrer) complains about the poster. Jane asks Henri to paint her portrait. His paintings are shown.
In 1900 Henri meets Myhriamme Hayam (Suzanne Flon) as she throws a key into the Seine. At his art show Henri is drunk, and Maurice advises him to stop drinking. Jane introduces Myhriamme to Henri. On stage Jane sings. She says she is going to marry Victor.
Myhriamme likes Henri’s work and asks if he drinks for oblivion like her father who died. She shows him his portrait of Marie. He asks her to go to the opera and deprecates himself. They attend a horse race, and he meets her boyfriend Marcel she left. She asks Henri if he was in love with Marie.
Henri finds La Goulue drunk claiming she was a star, and he gives her a ride. Myhriamme tells Henri that Marcel asked her to marry. Henri gets angry and leaves. He gets a note from Myhriamme that she is marrying Marcel.
Henri drinks absinthe. He collapses, and Sgt. Patou takes him home. Henri falls down stairs. Henri’s parents watch him dying. His father says the Louvre accepted his paintings. Henri imagines the Moulin Rouge.
This drama portrays the psychological quirks of an unusual artistic genius who suffers from self-pity that he also extends to others in need of help. The story is essentially true as Toulouse-Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis at the age of 36.