The Film: 'Moulin Rouge!' (2001), Dir. Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo and Jim Broadbent.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to 'Moulin Rouge!' There are those that think it's some sort of pop art masterpiece and those that think it's an embarrassing disaster. I've spent the past nine years believing the "embarrassing disaster" group. Since I'm finally about to watch it, let's hope they're wrong.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: I'm going to play both sides this week. Ahem.
" 'Moulin Rouge!' is one of the most beautiful romances ever committed to celluloid, a movie about big emotions told in a big a way, a cinematic journey unlike anything ever seen before. By taking modern songs and transplanting them to a bygone era, it's also the rare musical to comment on the timelessness of music, to force to audience to examine popular music in a bold new context. It's a wild choice, but this is a wild movie, with the only thing more frantic than the songs and performances being the dizzying cinematography and colorful art direction. 'Moulin Rouge!' is unashamed of its excess and unabashedly romantic, a Busby Berkeley throwback as well as a bold new step for the musical genre."
" 'Moulin Rouge!' is one of the most insipid and insulting disasters ever committed to celluloid, a loud mess that can't even find entertainment in its disgusting excess, a cinematic nightmare liable to cause migraines and nausea. The use of modern songs is lazy, cheap and cheesy, making the entire film feel like one long unfunny joke, forcing the audience to sit through sh*tty covers of sh*tty songs performed by sh*tty singers. It's a poor choice in a movie filled with poor choices, especially the gaudy cinematography and loud, tacky at direction. Everyone involved in 'Moulin Rouge!' should be shamed of themselves for making Busby Berkeley roll over in his grave and set the musical genre back by, oh, a few decades at least."
Those are the average opinions I tend to hear regarding 'Moulin Rouge!' Faced with such polarizing, extreme reactions, I've decided to expect the film to be adequate and passable but thoroughly mediocre and entirely forgettable. 'Cause that's how I roll.
Now it's time to watch this thing. It's about Ewan McGregor falling in love with Nicole Kidman's singing prostitute with a heart of gold and having to win her heart over a richer, high class suitor, right? Am I close?
Post-Viewing Reaction: Well, kinda,' sorta,' but not really. The basic plot conventions feel more like a classic screwball comedy than a wide-eyed romantic drama, which initially proves unexpected and refreshing. Christian (Ewan McGregor) is an implacably British writer living in 1900 Paris. Through a wacky case of mistaken identity, he finds himself writing a play for an inexplicably British burlesque dancer named Satine (Nicole Kidman) and her inexplicably British director/manager Harold (Jim Broadbent). They're being funded by the inexplicably British Duke (Richard Roxburgh), whose keeps their coffers full because he's convinced Satine will be his, but she's already in love with Christian. Complications ensue. Much singing happens.
Telling you that this undeniably comedic premise takes a dark turn in the second half of the film and becomes a bleak, heartbreaking tragedy, may sound like a spoiler, but it actually feels like a necessity. The first half of 'Moulin Rouge!' is an obnoxious and overblown cartoon, but when the film changes gears and starts to take itself pretty seriously, it becomes a unique, truly romantic film with plenty to admire. Perhaps it's because I'm watching the film for the first time nearly a decade after it split the critical community in half, but I can clearly see where both sides are coming from when they champion and criticize this film -- mainly because both of them are simultaneously correct.
You certainly can't blame director Baz Luhrmann for trying. This is a guy who with each of his films aims big and aims weird. You can't fault the man for trying something new ... even at his worst, it's undeniable that the man has a unique vision that he won't compromise for anyone, even if that anyone is someone who most likely has a point worth listening to. His 'Romeo + Juliet' transformed one of the most famous plays in history into a two hour MTV music video. His 'Australia' was a gorgeous failure that attempted to recapture the big Hollywood epics of yesteryear. 'Moulin Rouge,' er, well, it's a wild, flamboyant musical that samples and re-interprets pop songs from various times and without removing modern production values, places them in an early 20th century Paris that looks like a steampunk Las Vegas.
No matter how you feel about the film, you can't say you've seen that before. Throw him a bone.
The truth is, when you play the all-or-nothing game like Luhrmann does with 'Moulin Rouge!', you're bound to have rough edges. Those rough edges here are perfectly encapsulated by the opening half hour of the film, which manages to introduce about a dozen characters, move between a dozen locations, go through several musical numbers and contain what feels like thousands of cuts and all the while still move at a snail's pace. Luhrmann's frantic, chaotic style reminds me of Michael Bay, another filmmaker who wouldn't know subtlety if it crawled up his leg and bit him on the eye. In the same way that, oh, let's say 'Transformers,' would have benefited from a camera that stopped moving and pulled back for longer than .7 seconds at a time, I truly wish Luhrmann had more faith in his amazing (Oscar winning) production design, equally amazing costumes (also Oscar winning) and his performers (who range from adequate to very, very good) to tell the story. A highly choreographed dance sequence with seemingly dozens of participants is a hard thing to not enjoy, but Luhrmann does his absolute best to ensure that we don't by cutting so fast and frantically that we lose all sense of the geography, making the whole thing feel, well, faked.
That fakeness is just a shame because of just how beautiful the film's design truly is. Just look at these stills!
Oh, the songs. What is a musical without its songs? Although I find the on-the-nose use of famous songs from the likes of David Bowie, Elton John, Paul McCartney and many, many more to be slightly obnoxious (although Cinematical's own Monika Bartyzel wrote a nice piece on why these songs work earlier this week), Kidman and McGregor have surprisingly fine singing voices and never flat-out embarrass themselves. However, the imperfection of their voices may have worked better with an original set of songs, which could have capitalized on their "everyman" quality instead of making many numbers sound like glorified karaoke. I understand what Luhrmann was going for here ... the idea that music is immortal and reflects humanity and love from all times and places and that these songs crawl into our souls and become a part of who we are ... but an original score would have saved me from seeing Jim Broadbent speak-sing his way through Madonna's "Like A Virgin," a scene that I never-ever-ever need to see again.
But Broadbent (the rare actor who has never phoned in a single performance) completely commits to what the role asks of him and plays it to the hilt. The same can be said for Kidman and McGregor, who keep the film watchable through its rocky first half with its Looney Tunes antics and irritating comic relief and lead us to the second half, where the film finally finds a tone that works. When Luhrmann raises the stakes for the characters, 'Moulin Rouge!' stops being a frivolous comic musical and becomes deeply involving tale of deceit and lust and love and the purpose of art. In fact, the final twenty minutes or so is borderline perfect cinema: a love triangle, a musical number, an unaware audience, a gun, a handful of lies coming home to roost and a sung profession of love that provided me with that always wonderful but far too uncommon chill down my spine. Saying that the entire film should have felt like this is an unfair criticism -- there's no way Luhrmann could have ever maintained this strange, powerful energy for 127 minutes.
I really wish that the entire film had felt like that.
I don't want to make it sound like I think 'Moulin Rouge!' is a bad film, because it's not. It's messy and it's wild and it's one of the easiest targets for snarky criticism I've ever seen, but I admire its boldness. I admire its drive. I admire its determination. Above all, I admire its honesty. Last week, I wrote about 'The Sound of Music,' nothing that its lack of cynicism made it feel fresh and vital in an age of snark. 'Moulin Rouge!' is no sound of music, but it's 100% snark free. It is what it is and nothing more, nothing less.
Next Week's Column: Last week, you guys made it pretty clear that 'The Bicycle Thief' (or as its properly titled, 'Bicycle Thieves') should be my next entry, meaning that after years of finding every imaginable excuse to avoid Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece (as it's labeled in every film textbook ever printed), I've finally been backed into a corner and must face it. But what should I watch after that? Browse the dwindling selection and vote in the comments below!
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'