by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Moulin Rouge! (note the exclamation point), Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical extravaganza and a quite peculiar movie, alternately dazzling and numbing, a geyser of songs (mostly recognizable rock and dance hits from the 1970’s and 1980’s — mostly all too recognizable, quite frankly) staged with barely adequate singers on a sumptuous dance floor with splendiferous sets, dazzling colors (I’ve got a bright spot — no pun intended — for any movie that offers us more than dirty browns and greens these days!), excellent choreography and one of those modern ADHD editing styles from a director and an editor (Jill Bilcock) who seem convinced that if they ever hold a shot on the screen longer than three seconds, the audience will get horrendously bored.
The plot, not that it matters, concerns writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), who escapes his Victorian prude father in 1899 Britain and makes his way to Paris, where he falls in with a bunch of Bohemians including artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). They engage (I can’t really say “hire” since they can’t afford to pay him) him to write a super-show called Spectacular Spectacular, and prevail on the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), to stage it as a vehicle for his on-stage star and off-stage courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman, top-billed). We already know Satine is doomed from the start because the story is introduced in a flashback by Christian, who’s writing it as a book a year after it occurred and his narration is supposedly what he’s writing. Satine and Christian are paired by Zidler (who appears to be her pimp) when he mistakenly gets them together because he thinks Christian is the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), whom he’s trying to get to invest in the show.
From then on the plot (by director Luhrmann and Chris Pearce) turns into an inventive but still readily discernible reworking of Camille, complete with the idyllic time for the lovers, its sudden end (the Duke has demanded that Zidler promise him sexual exclusivity with Satine in exchange for the money to put on the show), the scene (enacted not at a casino but on stage at the Moulin Rouge during the performance of Christian’s script) in which a hurt Christian throws money at Satine’s feet and explains to the shocked audience that he’s paid the whore off; and her final death from tuberculosis — prefigured by an early shot of her coughing tiny spots of blood into a handkerchief that’s the most heart-stoppingly beautiful shot in the film, one Guy Maddin would have been proud of.
Alas, most of Moulin Rouge! is simply an elaborate set of song cues, in which modern-day pieces of bathos like Elton John’s “Your Song” (which was just barely tolerable when he recorded it initially and simply doesn’t carry the emotional weight in this story the script tells us it does) and “Up Where We Belong” intermix awkwardly (and, at times, brilliantly — as when a duet between Satine and Christian segues from David Bowie’s “Heroes” to “I Will Always Love You” and the bridge actually works!) with edgier material like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (sung as a duet by Broadbent and Roxburgh in the most entertaining sequence in the film, even if it comes off like a middle-aged Gay male couple whose members are both getting in touch with their inner Madonnas) and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (the notes to this film on imdb.com state that Courtney Love was briefly considered for Satine and, while she wasn’t cast, she did allow them to use her late husband’s song even though she usually turns such requests down).
Much of the fun of Moulin Rouge! lies in the sheer outrageousness of its song cues, its sense of, “They’re not going to perform that here, are they?” Some of the songs work quite well — Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” actually comes off better as a duet than it did when he sang it solo — but most of them seem artificially torn from their original contexts and flung willy-nilly into this one, and the most moving parts of the film were when the songs being performed weren’t pieces I know (only one original song was used, and even that was one that had been written for a previous Luhrmann film but not used there).
Moulin Rouge! almost begs comparison with John Huston’s similarly titled film of 1952, which had an even more artistic (though less openly spectacular) use of color and shared the turn-of-the-century Paris setting and Toulouse-Lautrec as a character, but was made with warmth and heart — qualities lacking in this lumbering spectacle except in very brief moments, in which the acting skill of Nicole Kidman actually puts some flesh on the bones of her character and makes one wonder how she would do in a come scritto version of Camille. (The two stories are close enough that Richard Roxburgh even adopts Henry Daniell’s slimy vocal inflections in his role as the Duke.)
The modern Moulin Rouge! is an impressive movie on one level — Charles suggested it was what Busby Berkeley would be doing if he were alive and active today, and indeed Luhrmann copied some of Berkeley’s classic kaleidoscopic dance shots — but its plot is as pretextual as that of a porn movie and the film suffers from an excess of “cool,” from the damnable emotional distance between us and the characters modern-day directors like to create just to show us how “hip” they are. (To be sure, that bothers me less in a film like this, in which the story is obviously only a pretext for the songs and dances, than in a film like Brokeback Mountain which was intended to be a great love story and, for me, failed because I never really felt for the people in the film.) It’s fun in a dorky, rather lumbering way (how appropriate that Satine should live inside a plaster elephant — a prop at the real Moulin Rouge but not anybody’s residence in real life!) but one wishes for more heart.