Film: Moulin Rouge
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.
Baz Luhrmann has directed exactly four movies in his interesting career, and two of them are on this list, a pretty good average. His output comes in fits and starts, averaging about one film every five years. Of the four, Australia bombed, two ended up on this list, and the final, Romeo + Juliet could be argued, although I wouldn’t make the argument.
It can certainly be argued that his productions become more and more lavish as time goes on. His first film, Strictly Ballroom is on its own merits, unrestrained, but compared with his later films, is downright sedate. This is especially true when comparing it with Moulin Rouge. This film takes the music and dancing of Ballroom and pairs it with the anachronisms of Romeo into an absinthe-fueled whole that is as much fever dream as it is film.
Frankly, I’m not sure how to react to it.
On the one hand, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, set at the turn of the last century in Paris and the eponymous club made famous by the art of Toulouse-Lautrec (played here by John Leguizamo). And yet, it is also filled with modern music. Rehearsing a play in which our hero Christian (Ewan McGregor) is thrust into the role of a Swiss poet, he suddenly breaks out into “The Sound of Music.” Confronted by the cast of this nascent play and asked if he believes in love, he spits forth a trio of modern song lyrics. Once in the club, we’re treated to a medley of disco and grunge (the entire crowd sings Nirvana lyrics), show tunes and Madonna. It’s difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what or when this is supposed to be.
Since it’s a musical, we’ve got to have a love story, or more precisely, a love triangle. We’ve got Christian, of course. We’ve also got the powerful and wealthy Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who is obsessed with the star of the show at the Moulin Rouge, Satine (Nicole Kidman). The manager of the cabaret show, Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent, who is always great in everything he touches) wants Satine to convince the Duke to underwrite the show by any means possible. Especially by the means that you’re thinking of. Through a haze of mistaken identity, she assumes Christian is the Duke, attempts to seduce him, and the two end up very much in love.
But, of course, not all is well. The Duke wants her, and will not underwrite the show unless he has her, putting Satine in a difficult position. Does she go for stability or for true love? Happiness or wealth? The penniless writer or the wealthy man of means? Frankly, it’s like a musical version of Titanic without the sinking ship. Or, more precisely, it’s a musical version of Les Enfants du Paradis with only two suitors.
I can certainly understand why people love this movie. It is lavish in a way that few films are. The costumes are astounding, and they won a much-deserved Oscar. The musical numbers are equally over-the-top and grand in a way that the classic musicals of the 30s and 40s could only dream of being. As seems to be the case with Luhrmann when he has free range, it’s all about the spectacle.
And therein lies my issue with this film. It really is all about the spectacle, and less about the story than I am comfortable with. This is a story I know. It could only end in a couple of ways (the comparisons above are a pretty sizable hint, as is Luhrmann’s second film). The characters are no one I haven’t met before in other films—I did, after all, watch Titanic within the week. These characters are only moderately different from those—really, only Satine is different. The Duke is Cal, Christian is Jack. The Moulin Rouge is the ship. The fact that Satine has tuberculosis is the iceberg. And in both films, the band plays on.
It is a spectacle. It is, unquestionably, something you have never seen before in terms of sights and musical numbers and lavish sets and costumes. But if anything in this story surprises you, you’ve never seen a movie before. Based on that, it’s difficult for me to recommend out of hand. But sometimes, a little style over substance isn’t a terrible thing.
Why to watch Moulin Rouge: Lavish numbers and raucous music.
Why not to watch: Insert Character A into Situation B, attach with #2 screws.