Moulin Rouge (2001)

D: Baz Luhrmann
S: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor

The spirit of George Méliès looms large over Moulin Rouge. If the arguably over-simplistic division in the history of the cinematic image is between the 'realist' tradition inspired by the Lumières and the 'fantastic' trick-laden spectacles of Méliès holds any weight, then this film is a glimpse of a cinema that might have been had the latter proved to be the ascendant. It is an hallucinogenic, visually multi-layered trick-book of image creation and manipulation in the service of a pretty routine story filled with familiar ingredients which root the madness in the imagination. The plot has penniless would-be writer Ewan McGregor (Nora, Little Voice) arrive in Paris in 1899 with the hope of a taste of the bohemian life devoted to truth, beauty, freedom, and above all love. He meets courtesan Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut, The Peacemaker), star at the nearby Moulin Rouge, a den of entertainment and vice famous the world over. The two fall in love, which is a problem because theatre owner Jim Broadbent (The Avengers, Bridget Jones's Diary) has been trying to win the sponsorship of grasping Duke Richard Roxburgh (Mission: Impossible II), who wants Kidman for himself in exchange. Yes, it is the hoary old plot of hundreds of creaky stage melodramas played out for slack-jawed audiences throughout the world since time immemorial. It is done here as a musical, which is also staple entertainment, and long ago proved to be a way of enlivening the bogstandard narratives audiences loved to hate. The movie knows all of this. It depends on it.

Moulin Rouge is the kind of movie which can be written about endlessly. It is a postmodernist spectacular par excellence; more dazzling than Natural Born Killers, less introverted than Deconstructing Harry and almost as energetic as William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (the latter being director Baz Luhrmann's previous film). It is stitched together from bits and pieces not only of other films, but styles, techniques, and stories from other art forms including painting, music, theatre, and literature. It references these constantly and self-consciously, it deconstructs itself by making its audience aware of its artificiality but demanding an emotional response anyway, and is it so replete with visual, aural, and textual detail that it could take a long time to sift through all of it if you chose to do so.

Like William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet before it, Moulin Rouge is a brilliant film. It takes a basic text and envisions it entirely cinematically. It finds ways to express in images what narrative storytelling has been doing for centuries. That Luhrmann takes Méliès as his inspiration makes it all the more effective. The film is frequently as wild and inspirational as Méliès' were and shares their capacity to inspire awe and wonder. Méliès told fantastic stories using every trick in the newly-opened book of moviemaking at precisely the time in which this film is set. The stories themselves were pretty silly, but they were envisioned with a wild (frequently theatrical) abandon which made them quite magical. Luhrmann has gone further than the French magician ever did. Using computer-aided imagery and various other photographic tricks which Méliès would have appreciated, he has plumbed the depths of the image more deeply. He draws layers upon layers of detail into each jam-packed frame, using decor, actors, composition, and editing to wring a mixture of meaning and irrelevance from every scene. From its self-referential opening following an in-jokey 'overture', the film references the beginnings of cinema itself and posits a continuity between the madness of that moment of birth and the aesthetic and political disintegration of the postmodern. It works, as does the aural link between the musical entertainments of turn of the century French hedonism and turn of the millennium rave culture.

One of the film's most visible conceits is the use of lyrics from well-known late twentieth century songs as the basis of most of the musical numbers. Songs including Diamond Dogs, Lady Marmalade, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Like a Virgin, Your Song, and Roxanne make their way into the score, usually performed by the cast and completely rethought melodically to suit the scene. This has the effect of keeping the audience up with the nudge-nudge wink-wink postmodernism and also of making such songs something more than just a ploy to sell soundtracks. In fact, if anything, the film makes the songs seem more meaningful. One finds oneself paying closer attention to the words than ever before. Taken out of context, they somehow seem more profound: a paradox their original authors might not appreciate but which works well for the movie. In a sense it implies a purity of expression which gives the film integrity as a work of art. On the other it is a characteristically postmodern demonstration of a lack of originality. Again though, it works, and, surprisingly, deepens the film on the whole.

The same rationale is behind the narrative. Strung together from the barnstormers of old, the basic plot proves simply a platform upon which bits of business are performed, most of them referring to other films, plays, and poems. Sneaky references to other musicals, gags about the business of entertainment and the seemingly random way in which stories can be constructed, stories within stories and songs within songs: all of these work their way through the basic story and its sub-plots without seeming tacked on. This is a miracle of writing for which Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce are to be commended for. The film attempts to integrate its sense of the flow of artistic inspiration with a homage to the Bohemian spirit in its broadest sense (the script collapses the Bohemians of nineteenth century Paris with the would-be peace-and-love revolutionaries of the 1960s). Though heavy handed in this respect, it is thematically coherent insofar as this particular story is in itself (and in all it implies) an illustration of how principles such as truth and beauty can survive human follies.

Luhrmann has been aided in his endeavours by an enormous range of talent on every technical level. It is beautifully shot, designed, decorated, made-over, and edited. It also boasts terrific performances from all of the cast. The actors walk a difficult tightrope between burlesque grotesquerie, parody, and legitimate performance. Most of the roles are written in broad strokes which suit the sense of excess upon which most of it is founded. The most recognisably human characters are those played by Kidman and McGregor, both of whom are very good. Kidman is given the task of performing performance, a gambit which always runs the risk of leaving the actor lost. She manages it well, and is as impressive 'on' stage as 'off'. McGregor is terrific. The film draws a genuinely convincing performance from him, which is vital in making the central relationship believable and emotionally involving. The supporting turns from Broadbent and Roxburgh are more cartoonish, but both of them work in the spirit of the overall film. Roxburgh in particular hits just the right balance of campy sneering and genuine villainy.

The film on the whole may be too busy and too noisy for some viewers. If you are appalled by the first few minutes, then leave the theatre. Most others should enjoy it on one level or another. It can be viewed as a simple love story with lots of recognisable lyrics played as a mad farce: a good giggle with some romance and some music. It can be studied as an intensely cinematic treatise on cinema itself: a beard-stroker. It can also simply be admired as a piece of dazzling millennial technical wizardry, a virtuoso bit of craftsmanship that is impossible to ignore. Almost any way you approach it, Moulin Rouge is a worthwhile experience. It is far from beyond criticism, but it has enough energy and humour to make serious nitpicking a curmudgeonly act of self-indulgence. At least the movie is extroverted.

See it on the biggest screen you can find, by the way.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.