See Moulin Rouge!, if you really love movies — and then complain about it. If you can, see it now while it’s in theaters, and go with a friend or a date. Afterwards, pick it apart: the garish overacting, the manic camerawork, the two-dimensional characters, the hackneyed story, the knee-jerk emotional cues of the nostalgic soundtrack. Deconstruct the gimmickry, the fragmentation, the emotional hollowness. Cluck incredulously at the willful self-delusion of a minority of swooning critics and fans who insist on seeing a great film where there is only a maddening, opulent, hyperactive, dazzling, self-indulgent, extravagant mess.
Heave a melancholy sigh, and be grateful. Grateful for a movie that at least tried — that was willing to go for broke in grand style with no thought of failure. Grateful that there is a brave lunatic like Baz Luhrmann trying for all he’s worth to make great big glorious movies, even if he fails more often than he succeeds. I’ll take a daring failure like Moulin Rouge! over a prefabricated success like The Mummy Returns any day.
Damning with faint praise? More like praising with faint damns. Moulin Rouge! is a failure: a towering monument of wasted potential, of lost opportunity, of good ideas gone bad and bad ideas gone amok. It’s got the same attention-grabbing take-no-prisoners style (though on a far larger scale) as Luhrmann’s first film, the sublime Strictly Ballroom; but that film had something Moulin Rouge! can’t be bothered with: characters who emerged from their situations as real and likable people. Moulin Rouge! even recycles plot elements from the earlier film: A naive but talented young outsider falls for a driven, unattainable professional whose Svengali-like handlers oppose the relationship for self-interested reasons. There’s even a climactic scene that mirrors the grand finale of Ballroom in such specific detail that Luhrmann could sue himself for plagiarism; but what he can’t replicate is the first film’s heart appeal.
The twist here is that this time it’s the girl (Nicole Kidman) who’s the driven, unattainable professional, while the boy (Ewan McGregor) is the naive but talented young outsider. Christian (McGregor) is an idealistic writer swept away by the bohemian revolution in turn-of-the-century Paris, who gushes about Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and especially Love, even though he has no actual experience of love, until he meets Satine (Kidman), a celebrated courtesan and entertainer at the notorious Moulin Rouge.
Suddenly, love lifts him up where he belongs, all he needs is love, and he wants to fill the world with silly love songs — what’s wrong with that? If your answer is something like "What’s wrong is that you’re quoting lines written six or seven decades after Christian and Satine are supposed to have lived"… boy, are you missing the point, and are you ever going to be lost when Christian begins improvising a love song for Satine that turns out to be Elton John’s "Your Song." Maybe you’ll get a clue by the time you see Satine’s boss — Moulin Rouge impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent, looking like Faust and P. T. Barnum and Salvador Dali rolled into one) — wrapped in a tablecloth prancing around to a showtune version of Madonna’s "Like a Virgin."
If all this sounds rather tawdry and decadent, well, it is. Moulin Rouge! is a sweet love story set in a nightclub-brothel, surrounded by a sea of drunken, dissolute old fools in eveningwear, cheap hookers, painted harlequins, assorted perverts and misfits, even, yes, a brace of dwarfs. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that this is hardly a prurient or sexy film. Nicole Kidman is a lovely woman, but for a courtesan she doesn’t dress particularly provocatively, and, since Luhrmann has no more patience for lingering over Kidman than over anything else, the camera doesn’t ogle her. Likewise, back-to-back scenes in which Satine attempts to seduce two male characters are anything but erotic.)
Despite Satine’s sleazy milieu, Christian’s love really does lift her up where she belongs. In one scene particularly it all seems real for a moment, as Satine lets Zidler know how he destroyed her spirit by reducing her to a commodity, and how Christian’s love has given her a new sense of self-worth and meaning.
Alas, this is a Doomed, Tragic Love: Satine (we learn in an early framing scene) is dying of consumption. Also there is some business about a rich duke (Richard Roxburgh) who wants Satine for his mistress, and is willing to pay Zidler handsomely for her: He will transform the Moulin Rouge into a real theater, make Zidler a legitimate entertainer, turn Satine into a star, and produce Christian’s musical "Spectacular Spectacular."
Of course, there are a couple of catches. Satine loves Christian; and Christian hasn’t actually written a musical. Christian and the others razzle-dazzle the duke into buying "Spectacular Spectacular," but it’s all a hoax; what Christian and Satine in fact sell the duke is a thinly veiled version of the story that is actually unfolding among the three of them — the duke, the courtesan, and the writer. Eventually, this hoax of a musical actually makes it to the stage, with all the glitter and sparkle that Zidler — and Luhrmann — can muster.
Why did I find myself thinking that "Spectacular Spectacular"
could just as easily have been the name of another hoax of a
musical called Moulin Rouge!? I’m reminded of another
wildly creative film, Fellini’s
The difference, of course, is that Fellini’s film really is personal and introspective and achieves the depth of great art. Luhrmann’s musical, by contrast, is superficial and empty; unlike Christian, Luhrmann has not bared his heart in his work. Of course, I suppose I could have to reevaluate that were it to turn out that Luhrmann was actually in love with a girlfriend of one of his producers or something. Yet whatever the inspiration, the fact remains that Luhrmann failed to create moving characters or situations.
Oh, yes, there’s a lot to complain about in Moulin Rouge! It’s no Strictly Ballroom, that’s for sure. Maybe Luhrmann will never make a film that good again. Or maybe someday lightning will strike twice. If it does, I’ll be there when it happens. If not, I’ll keep complaining. Either way, I’ll be there. If you love movies, you may want to be too.
Here is a test to find out if you might want to see Moulin Rouge! One critic complains that the movie is "like being stuck inside a kaleidoscope for two hours while a madman plays a calliope next to your ear." All right — fair enough. But if you can’t help thinking that still sounds more intriguing than Pearl Harbor… then maybe you want to check out this film. That’s the closest I can come to recommending Moulin Rouge!
(Co-written with Emily Snyder) Like Moulin Rouge!, Chicago involves sordid goings-on in a rather seamy milieu; but where the earlier film tried to contrast its dissolute ambiance with heart-warming sincerity and idealism, Chicago is cynical to the core.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.