Just where do you start with a film like Moulin Rouge!? Just what precedent is there in modern cinema, in any cinema, for such a venture? Precious few, I would endeavour to say. Moulin Rouge! is that rarity in cinema. A true one-off. A symphony of garish colours, and raucous show-tunes surrounding a truly corny storyline. And at the centre of all of this, two immensely beguiling performances by two actors who you would think should know better. It is a testament to their attitude towards their work, and to cinema’s betterment, that they didn’t. Ultimately, of course, Moulin Rouge! is entirely deserving of the epithet “marmite movie”. You will love it, or you will hate it. I very much doubt anyone can remain indifferent towards it though.
The story begins with an audacious camera sweep through the Montmartre district of Paris in 1899 – a place where the summer of love is being predated by 67 years. The Europeans, as usual, had got there long before the Americans. The Moulin Rouge is a famous club in the district, indeed in the world of the time – where bohemians work to overthrow the culture of the time, and courtesans work the night time.
Into this backdrop comes the impossibly naïve Christian (Ewan McGregor) who is a penniless writer, who believes that Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love are all that a fellow needs to get them through life. Luckily for Christian, just above the cheap room he rents a group of bohemian actors are rehearsing a musical called “Spectacular Spectacular”. They are hoping that this will be put on at the Moulin Rouge by its owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) but are having trouble with the lyrics. They have come up with a line that just won’t work – and when Christian sings “The Hills are alive, with the Sound of Music”, they have a new writer.
When Christian is sent to get an audience with Satine (Nicole Kidman) to gain her support he is mistaken for the Duke (Richard Roxborough) who Satine is expecting to service in return for his patronage. Thus, in a memorable scene full of misunderstanding Christian falls for the beautiful courtesan. He continues to woo her through the medium of the musical, basing the story on their blossoming love. But Satine has been promised to the Duke, and he will stop at nothing to get her. She may fall in love with Christian but will their circumstances allow them to be together?
OK, so if you read the above it sounds incredibly hackneyed and the fact is that this is how it also plays out during the film. The story is predictable, corny, and completely unoriginal. But in many ways this is the whole point of the film. Luhrmann knows exactly what he is bringing to the screen, and does so with gusto. He embraces the corniness. Thus, every character is almost stereotypical in their portrayal. Christian is stereotypically naïve – no-one could possibly really be like that. Satine is the typical “tart with a heart”. She believes that all a girl needs to get by is money and a rich husband. She yearns for this, until she realises what true love is. Zidler is a hard nosed businessman, and the Duke is pure evil – obsessed with material things and feeling like anyone has their price.
Yet somehow out of this mixture of predictability and familiarity Luhrmann builds a film that totally draws you into the world that is being portrayed. He does this in two ways. The first is in the sheer brilliance of the visuals and sound that he uses. He is not afraid to bend reality to his will, in scenes such as the elephant love scene, where Satine and Christian dance across the rooftops of Paris and the moon even sings. His production design is also never less than totally amazing. He creates a world which is never completely believable (it isn’t meant to be), but gives us a fantasy of how we might want that world to be. He moves his camera audaciously, using jump cuts and trick shots to achieve completely unbelievable results. Every frame is beautifully composed, and the characters placed into each shot with the attention a painter may pay. It is quite clear that every frame is the product of a filmmaker at the top of his game. You may not like the film, but you can always recognise the talent behind it.
The second way that Luhrmann draws the audience in is the amazing performances he coaxes from all the actors. The chemistry between Christian and Satine is all there on screen. They may be caricatures, but against your better judgement you really grow to care about them. Both McGregor and Kidman deliver standout performances, and play their roles with gravitas.
Interestingly against these two main roles, which are taken seriously, the rest of the roles are played in an entirely different manner – and this provides an interesting contrast. The other actors have obviously been told to ham it up and they do this to great effect. Both Broadbent and Roxborough relish the opportunities given to them to chew up the scenery, and never as obviously as during the Like A Virgin number.
Like A Virgin? Yes – for Moulin Rouge! uses modern music anachronistically to help tell the story. The musical style is as frenetic as the visual, often only allowing brief snippets of famous songs, such as the Here we are now, entertain us refrain from smells like teen spirit. Sometimes this does come across as rather frustrating – particularly if it is a snippet of a song you particularly like. At other times though, it makes perfect sense – never more brilliantly used than during the elephant love song medley, where snatches of famous love songs fit together into a perfectly fused whole.
So, are you likely to enjoy Moulin Rouge! as a film? Well that really depends on your tolerance for hyperactive filmmaking. For make no mistake, whereas the story may be conventional, the way it is put together most certainly isn’t. You may find the anachronistic centre to the film rather off putting – the juxtaposition of 19th Century France with the most modern of film techniques. The combining of a hoary love story with the most modern of music. And even the film’s most complementary of fans would probably recognise that at times the whole enterprise does rather teeter on a self-indulgent precipice. But amazingly, it never quite falls over that edge. The combination of the two central sweet performances, and the simplicity of the story pulls the film back from the brink and ends up being the perfect foil for Luhrmann’s excesses. The result is rather like a heavy night touring the absinthe bars of Europe. You will feel like you have been through a hallucigenic dream, and it is not something that you would want to repeat often. But once or twice a year it’s fun to just cut loose and spend a couple of hours in Luhrmann’s world.
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