MOULIN ROUGE

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

With Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Richard Roxburgh, Jim Broadbent and John Leguizamo

***1/2



MOULIN ROUGE is the kind of folly I’d thought Hollywood accountants had long since ruled out: an unabashed melodrama that can stand alongside Léos Carax’s LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF, Lars von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES and Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA. Like them, it’s shamelessly excessive, walking a fine line between mania and heartbreak.  If you’re in the wrong mood, it’ll easily become grating, since Luhrmann doesn’t have the
finesse of a Carax or even von Trier or Anderson. His sensibility is thoroughly campy and knowing, yet there’s something simple about the film as well:
it boils down to a touching love story surrounded (and enhanced) by frippery.

Christian (McGregor) is an English would-be writer who’s migrated to Montmarte at the eve of the 20th century, against his father’s wishes. He meets Toulouse
Latrec (Leguizamo, basically playing comic relief) when a narcoleptic Argentine actor crashes through his floor. Joining up with Latrec and friends, he decides to work on their play SPECTACULAR SPECTACULAR, a nebulous concept devised as a vehicle for high-class prostitute/Moulin Rouge star Satine
(Kidman). At first, Christian doesn’t know that she’s dying from  tuberculosis or that she’s promised herself to the Duke (Roxburgh), who’s financing their play.

The music rights to MOULIN ROUGE must have cost a fortune. It’s a virtual compendium of the lighter side of 20th-century pop music -  20th-century love songs, especially - that takes in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Air Supply, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” among several dozen others. (Perversely, the soundtrack’s current hit single, “Lady Marmalade,” sung by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink, is only heard for about 30 seconds, drowned out by the Moulin Rouge MC’s patter.) This use of music has nothing in common with the lazy collection of 70s rock hits in A KNIGHT’S TALE.  At best, that film makes facile connections between the past and present, connecting medieval jousting to present-day sports via Queen’s arena anthem “We Will Rock You.” A similarly energetic score played on traditional instruments would probably produce the same effect as A KNIGHT’S TALE’s use of “I Want to
Take You Higher” or “Takin’ Care Of Business.”

Undoubtedly, MOULIN ROUGE intends to say something about the way the past has faded into a continuum (its vision of the Moulin Rouge owes a lot to CABARET, and Latrec and Christian’s vague Bohemian rhetoric to the 60s), but  the exact point remains hazy. However, there’s little nostalgia in its use of music. How many people are likely to recognize all its songs, or to like all of them? Luhrmann didn’t choose them for their hipness quotient, yet he manages to make the kitschy sentimentality of Elton John’s “Your Song” (which becomes the film’s theme, as sung repeatedly by McGregor and Kidman) signify real emotion. MOULIN ROUGE treats them as malleable material. Rather than relying on the originals, it completely re-arranges them (turning the Police’s “Roxanne” into a tango sung by Jim Broadbent, for instance) and incorporates their lyrics as catchphrases.

MOULIN ROUGE is both a love story between a man and a woman and a boy and his CGI. Surprisingly, Luhrmann makes connections between postmodern and more traditional forms. Like many directors who started out making music videos or commercials, his editing is extremely quick, turning the musical numbers into
fragments. Few shots in MOULIN ROUGE last more than a second. Master shots don't come often, if ever. As a result, the film initially feels like it was made by a talented editor, cinematographer and production designer without a real director at the helm. But its style eventually amounts to something more than a case of ADD at the editing deck. Luhrmann’s hyperbole connects to  Christian and Satine’s emotional (and physical, in her case) crises. MOULIN ROUGE isn’t so much a musical - with a narrative pausing for individual songs - as an operetta, where lyrics make up much of the dialogue.

In this context, Luhrmann’s bombast becomes meaningful: keep in mind that the story is being told through the eyes of a writer trying to make his life
look more dramatic. Even without the love story, there’s something really seductive about MOULIN ROUGE. Its production design, which reduces Paris to
Christian’s garret, the Bar Absinthe and the luxurious Moulin Rouge and a lovely  backdrop, uses CGI to create a tinkertoy vision: Mélies via Gilliam, Caro/Jeunet and a multi-million-dollar Erector set.

Follies, including MOULIN ROUGE,  usually come with a host of flaws. Its reflexivity (which  collapses the characters’ lives into the play-within-the-film) feels tacked on. The opening is a bit too light in tone - although Kidman proves surprisingly good at garish farce - and proud of its own weirdness - I can understand Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Ken Russell comparison - to prepare one for the relatively serious turns that follow. Like von Trier (not to mention Puccini), Luhrmann is a bit too enamored of  sacrificial muses. But he also avoids all kinds of traps, connecting his own sense of possibility as a filmmaker to his characters’ desire to re-invent themselves. Starting off as light camp and winding up as sincere as it is excessive, MOULIN ROUGE  inventively synthesizes  MTV and opera, taking more chances and offering  higher rewards than any other American film of 2001.