A screen on a stage. And then another stage. And a typewriter. Stories of stories of stories. The postmodern playfulness of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! has been commented upon endlessly, but I think that type of theorizing infers sarcasm where there is only sincerity. This film is all about heightened emotions — it’s not just a musical, but a full-blown pop opera. Such would be a risky proposition in any era, but particularly in this century, with the box office dominated by the tastes of the typical heterosexual teenage boy and with young people in general suspicious of old-fashioned artifice. But Luhrmann went for it, and not timidly. Moulin Rouge! is a deeply polarizing film, but one virtue it inarguably possesses is boldness.
An entire generation complains that musicals aren’t realistic, as if this were somehow a flaw. One of the things I love the most about Moulin Rouge! is how the film gently mocks this attitude while still inviting the audience to participate rather than alienating them. You find it unlikely that a young lovestruck writer would suddenly be moved to express his feelings in song? Suppose what he spontaneously belts out is a pop song that won’t be written for another seventy years. It’s hard to miss the fact that realism was the last thing on the filmmakers’ minds. The soundtrack is filled with these anachronisms, and I think it’s wonderful. It is as if the film exists in a time warp, straddling two fin de siècle periods and creating its own little world.
The characters in this film articulate their feelings via the confections of a half century of arts and entertainment: from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna, from Rodgers & Hammerstein to MTV, from “Nature Boy” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Music is the hinge on which the plot turns. As explained in Young Frankenstein (of all things), “it reaches the soul when words are useless,” convincing characters to change their minds at last. This isn’t a mere exercise; Luhrmann is bursting with enthusiasm for all of it. He seems to love all of this pop culture equally, which is honestly insane but also charming — kind of like the movie as a whole.
A quality that Moulin Rouge! shares with Luhrmann’s previous film, Romeo + Juliet, is that it takes two extraordinarily beautiful faces and lights them incredibly well for a period of two hours. What R + J did for Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, this film does for Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. They’ve never looked better. Their performances are fine as well, but the characters in this film are the sum of the songs they sing, nothing more. So it all depends on how well they sing, and they do more than adequate work in that department. Standout members of the bizarre supporting cast include John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec (introduced as a clown but gradually revealing wisdom and sadness as he anticipates the tragedy around the corner but is powerless to stop it) and Jim Broadbent as Zidler (an outsize role that he was clearly born to play).
Everyone involved with the film is game for matching Luhrmann’s extravagant style, typified by the recurring visual motif of the camera swooping beneath, above, and through a windmill’s blade. This film is also infatuated with color, in ways seldom seen since the Technicolor musicals of the 40s and 50s. Reds and blues are especially dominant. Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife, deservedly won Oscars for this film in the categories of Art Direction and Costume Design. Each frame is packed with visual stimulation of some sort or other, and Jill Bilcock’s frantic editing lends visceral impact to much of the imagery. During the “El Tango de Roxanne” sequence, the crosscutting attains a special fury.
You might be wondering if there’s anything substantial underneath this gaudy, stylized celebration of fundamentally ephemeral culture. I do find the story affecting, however much it lifts from La traviata, La bohème, and James Cameron’s Titanic (operas all). The main character attains emotional maturity through the crucible of tragedy. This is a story of a young writer standing up to live before he can sit down to write, in Thoreau’s memorable words. Christian gets thrust into a plan to transform the Moulin Rouge bordello into a legitimate theater, composing the script for the inaugural production and writing his own love triangle into the story. What he learns in the course of the film is that no one is the author of his own life, and that the childlike ideals espoused by his bohemian companions are no guard against death — random, stupid, inescapable death, laying us low precisely when we feel we’ve triumphed. We can all stay callow for only so long.
From Satine’s perspective, the story is about a woman getting bandied about by powerful men until she is quite literally exhausted to death. The courtesan’s ambition, to become a “real actress” and thus practice her skills in a more respectable line of work, is naïve and pitiable. I find it the most moving thing about the film. When with her dying breath she asks Christian to “tell our story” and make it immortal, the only hope is that he will have grown enough to understand her pain as well as his own.
This is where I run into trouble, because this story is, allegedly, about love “above all things,” and yet I don’t respond to it primarily as a love story. Christian and Satine fall for each other, and it’s deeply tragic that their love brings about so much destruction, but that love is also the least interesting thing about either character. Moulin Rouge! isn’t so much about love as it’s about all these other celebrations of the concept that the film in turn celebrates. Luhrmann had the audacity to assert, with a film set in Belle Époque Paris, that a small group of American and British songwriters living a half-century later had something profound to say on the topic of love. Maybe what’s meant by “This story is about love” is not love for another person at all, but rather love for pop music and love for movies. Love for confetti, for the art of dance, for the Valentine heart. Even, dare I say, love for love itself. It’s absolutely postmodern, but rather than holding things at an ironic remove, it clings to them passionately.
Baz Luhrmann and Terrence Malick would seem to have nothing whatsoever in common, but they meet at one point, with two films that are among my all-time favorites. Moulin Rouge! is a brash, peerless visualization of pop music, just as The Tree of Life is a brash, peerless visualization of classical music. I’m oversimplifying things considerably, but I find that these films’ visual aesthetics match their chosen soundtracks perfectly. Luhrmann’s film is immaculate in its production, performed by drop-dead gorgeous people, filled with hooks, heavy on style and light on substance. It’s all frosting. It’s the Disneyland of cinema. It’s fantastic.