Moulin Rouge
review by Carrie Gorringe, 25 May 2001

It is 1900. As anyone familiar with the nearly two-year ups-and-downs of the production that is now Moulin Rouge knows, the basic situation revolves around an emotionally wounded writer named Christian (McGregor) looking back upon his life a year earlier, when his world existed of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, his pursuit of a beautiful, ambitious courtesan named Satine (Kidman) and his friendship with artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Leguizamo). Unfortunately for poor Satine, love cannot save her from a five-pronged dilemma: her love for Christian, an obsession with becoming a star, a duke (Roxburgh) who is obsessed with her to the point of murder, the devil's deal that the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Broadbent), has made with the Duke in order to secure the nightclub's future, and one final, inevitable, condition that arbitrarily threatens to bring the usual disaster upon the whole intricately-balanced situation and everyone within its orbit. All of this is set to music derived from sources as diverse as the Police, David Bowie and within the sensual, colorful moral putrefaction of the fin-de-siècle world in which the Parisian upper class, unaware that their social and financial security would be decimated by 1920, went slumming for the last time. Perhaps the best title for this illusion/delusion-fuelled film might have come from a line from an R.E.M song: "It's the end of the world as we know it//And I feel fine".

By way of a disclaimer, I have to confess that I went into a screening of Moulin Rouge as a longtime connoisseur of musicals, and with an open mind, despite reports that the film had generated a 50-50 cleavage right down the middle of critical opinion at Cannes. I left the screening both in a state of admiration and profound disappointment. The film is supposed to be a hybrid, so to speak, of the "old-fashioned" musicals made between 1929 and 1957 and modern music videos. Through this combination, Luhrmann hoped to transfuse new life into a moribund cinematic form. After two years and $58 million, the immediate reaction to the film is amazement at Luhrmann's ability to capture history in a manner that is both lush and visually confident, and not without a good deal of help. Production designer Catherine Martin – Luhrmann's wife – establishes this atmosphere immediately with an exquisite visual balance of glitter and decay, one that is richly augmented by the super-saturated reds achieved by cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine. Despite some rather vertiginous moments with shots that induce a sense of whiplash rather than admiration, McAlpine and Luhrman balance them with gorgeous long takes that never detract from their subjects (one in particular is on a par with the famous dolly shot down and through a rain-drenched upper-story window in Citizen Kane: Luhrmann's version takes the camera up from the Moulin Rouge's stage near the end of the film and concludes the shot at medium-close-up range outside the window of Christian's garret). The lead actors work their parts for every ounce of raw, overworked emotion, have passable singing abilities and, since they are fine actors and this is a Baz Luhrmann film, after all (describing his delightful Strictly Ballroom and a grand, modern translation of Romeo and Juliet as "emotionally torrid" is an understatement), it seems as if the director had achieved his ambition of realizing a new form of the musical genre.

Luhrmann, however, has made some strategically erroneous assumptions in building a better musical format. In interviews with the director, both the interviewer and the interviewee have often been discussing Luhrmann's goals in terms of scientific improvement for the musical ("interface" both as a noun and a verb, for example, have made their way into print), suggesting perhaps an inherent inferiority in the musical genre, and Luhrmann is not wrong in making that conclusion (film genres don't tend to expire and stay dead despite occasional attempts to revive them without containing some serious structural flaws and/or extreme cultural irrelevance). Attempting to explain away the flaws in Moulin Rouge by pegging them to McGregor and Kidman's "amateur" status as musical performers is, at the very least, grossly simplistic (Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire may have been peerless dancers, but their singing voices were, to be polite, somewhat limited in range): Kidman had some ballet training as a child and McGregor's role requires only limited dancing (there are no "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" or "Broadway Melody" sequences here, and, thanks to the above-mentioned camera work, the actors are merely part of the scenery, not its chief focus). The real source of the problem lies in Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Pearce's failure to comprehend how similar modern-music videos are to the "old-fashioned" musical: not only is the success of both driven by the exclusivity of the stars attached to the project in question, but also by the way in which the exclusivity of the material controls the audience response to it. Both forms rely upon powerful music, and (especially) upon intricate camera angles, editing and set design to create a sense of illusion that takes the audience "into" the work. If the overall composition of the components is effective, then the illusion holds (it's hardly surprising that film genre historians like Jane Feuer use the term "entertainment" to describe this phenomenon in musicals of making a carefully-constructed format seem like a spontaneous act). In short, the "difference" between music videos and traditional musicals, in terms of the structural elements and the goals each pursues, is really non-existent.

In addition, not only is Luhrmann's "cure" for the musical flawed because his assumptions about what ails the genre are incorrect but his belief in creating a new-and-improved musical format by combining the old style with modern music causes Moulin Rouge to collapse under the weight of an overbearing postmodernist sensibility. There is one significant difference between traditional musicals and videos, and it has a serious effect upon the credibility of Moulin Rouge. It lies in the relationship of performers to composers. After the advent of rock music in the 1950s, the balance of fame between songwriters and singers was upset in favor of a style in which those who wrote music were generally all but eclipsed in public awareness by performers (it might be argued that singer-songwriters like Carole King (from the late 1960s' to the present) and Carly Simon are exceptions to the rule, but, even though they write their own material, and it has been performed by others, the material does not, in the latter instance, sound as "authentic", with a few exceptions – such as Aretha Franklin – because the music is so integrated with the public images of King and Simon). This loss of balance explains why Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald, could put their individual stamps on the same songs by writers like Cole Porter or the Gershwin brothers, with both singer and songwriter(s) sharing equal credit for the recording's success, but the idea of anyone but Madonna singing "Like a Virgin" (one of the more egregious combinations of the ironic and the anachronistic in Moulin Rouge), is patently ridiculous; not only are the names of the individuals who wrote it relatively unknown to the general public, but the song is too much an entrenched part of Madonna's history as a performer to be ripped out of context in the name of so-called genre renewal. Thus, the entire film gives off an air of uncertainty, as if Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Pearce can't figure out whether they want to resurrect the musical or sabotage it. While it's fun on certain levels to play deconstruct-the-text as a test of musical and historical knowledge, the constant tongue-through-the-cheek wrenching on the film's characters and narrative, and an excessive reliance upon this uneasy anachronism-plus-renewal-equals-regeneration-via-ironic-subtext equation, take an irreparable toll on the film's legitimacy.

In perhaps the worst irony of all, Luhrmann and Pearce managed, while working on the script for Moulin Rouge, to forget the most important preconditions of all in formulating a script: consistency and relevancy, both of which Luhrmann had already mastered. His "new and improved" version of Romeo and Juliet, despite first impressions, was effective, not only for the movie-star presence of Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes, but also because the director correctly understood the common elements between the world of L.A. gangs and Shakespeare's play: passion and revenge always transcend both temporality and exclusivity. By contrast, Moulin Rouge has no relevancy, either for the present or the past. It is, instead, a beautiful mess, emphasizing can't-can't rather than the can-can.

Directed by:
Baz Luhrmann

Ewan McGregor
Nicole Kidman,
John Leguizamo
Jim Broadbent
Richard Roxburgh
David Wenham
Garry Mcdonald
Kerry Walker
Jacek Koman
Caroline O'Connor
Matthew Whittet
Lara Mulcahy
Deobia Oparei

Written by:
Baz Luhrmann 
Craig Pearce

PG-13 - Parents Strongly Cautioned
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.





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