Saturday, December 17, 2011

Moulin Rouge! Movie Review: Ten Years Later, It Still Does It

“Love Is Like Oxygen.” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.” Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong.” “All You Need Is Love.” At least that’s what pop music tells us as well as Christian, the young penniless Bohemian writer looking for truth, beauty, freedom and love in turn of the twentieth century Paris in Baz Luhrmann’s kinetic marvel Moulin Rouge! It’s ten years ago this month I first saw this movie on DVD and shortly thereafter I sought it out in the one Manhattan theater that was still showing it. It simply astounded me even though I fully expected to be repelled by it. I’m not a fan of musicals in general, but it quickly became, along with West Side Story, one of only two examples of the genre I truly adore and landed on my list of favorite films of the first decade of the 21st century.


The screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce employs a plot so generic it’s actually paralleled action for action in the film’s play-within-a-movie concept, Ewan McGregor plays that young penniless Bohemian, traveled all the way to Paris (at the express admonition of his bourgeois father) from London to be a writer. He quickly falls in with the “Children of the Revolution,” including John Leguizamo’s bizarre interpretation of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec and Jacek Koman as a narcoleptic Argentinian. They’re writing a play which upholds their Bohemian ideology and have aspirations of it being performed at the eponymous nightclub and bordello with the Sparkling Diamond, Satine, in the lead role. Toulouse claims to have set up a private meeting between her and Christian, but on the same night a classic case of mistaken identity leads to her believing Christian to be the wealthy Duke, in town looking to invest in the Moulin Rouge.

McGregor is an unlikely match for Nicole Kidman’s Satine. It’s a strange pairing because I don’t feel that chemistry we speak of in romantic movie pairings, but their performances are individually strong enough to convince us that they fall in love for real. Kidman is particularly riveting to watch as she changes from the cool manipulative prostitute who thinks she’s seducing a Duke for his money while Christian sings Elton John’s “Your Song,” a tune that bore little significance for me before this movie but now forever etched in my mind as one of the all-time great love songs, to the starry-eyed love-struck young woman sharing a medley of love ballads including hits by artists as varied as Phil Collins and Kiss. It is through this medley that Christian woos Satine until she actually shifts from rejection to acceptance, the perfect example of the power of pop music to move people – people who are, incidentally, often starry-eyed and love-struck. Kidman and McGregor are the two performers most grounded in reality, a fact that helps really sell the love story aspect.

In addition to Leguizamo and Koman, the supporting cast includes Jim Broadbent as Moulin Rouge proprietor Harold Zidler and Richard Roxburgh as The Duke. Both Broadbent and Roxburgh relish their roles, the former as a mezzo-villain who only wants the best for everyone as long as it selfishly serves himself and the latter as the weasel-like villain and impediment to the star-crossed lovers finding happiness. They have a wonderfully funny and satirical duet of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” that takes place in “The Gothic Tower,” complete with Roxburgh looking like a latter-day Dracula, at the ready to pounce on the object of his lustful desires.

The whole production design is built as a fantasy Paris that never really existed. It’s an artifice that reflects the very nature of the movies themselves as escapist entertainments that merely approximate reality, much like the legitimate theater that Satine aspires to as she looks reverentially on a picture of “the great Sarah” Bernhardt. Luhrmann is a director who seems to have an innate understanding of how MTV specifically and pop music in general affects young people. His style of direction and editing, derided and jeered by many, is fast-paced with quick edits. Moulin Rouge! may have more cuts in its ‘action’ sequences than most other movies, but notice how it slows down for the emotional climaxes. Film editor Jill Bilcock uses the jump cuts and frenetic energy to drive through the big musical numbers, creating sensory overload when combined with the vivid colors of the costuming and bright cinematography of Donald McAlpine.

The key to the whole movie, what makes it work so well is the marriage of modern pop music to a setting a century old and a timeless story. The music department team, including score composer Craig Armstrong, did an astounding job coaxing an amalgam of pop material into a production that comes across as totally original. Songs you think you know so well are transformed and given new interpretations, like The Police’s “Roxanne” performed as an Argentinian tango to express the pangs and torture of falling in love with a prostitute. This use of contemporary pop music in a period setting received a lot of criticism at the time – the same kind leveled at Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for not conforming to everyone’s uptight standards of how Shakespeare is supposed to be presented. But the history each individual audience member has with those songs will help them bring more to their interpretation of the film. When some artist has already expressed the poetry necessary for a particular scene in the movie, why should Armstrong have worked with a lyricist to write something new? For this reason Moulin Rouge! does not suffer from what I deplore in most modern musicals – the dreadful song lyrics that narrate action rather than emote. Pop songs almost exclusively express feelings through poetry, which make the movie so powerful.

What also helps make the film so dramatic is our learning in the opening moments the fate of Satine and thus the end of the romance. It’s not a spoiler to say that she dies because Christian gives the game away in the first five minutes. This heightens the drama as we are continually reminded, especially every time we see her cough or faint, that the story is headed for tragedy. It’s interesting that Luhrmann chose to structure the drama like this in his first film after Romeo + Juliet. Perhaps he learned with that most well-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies that audiences can be moved despite knowing the ending well in advance.

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