Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Baz Luhrmann
viewed: 03/29/02 / diary entry: 04/02/02

Bombast.

This was the first word that came to mind while watching the first half-hour of Moulin Rouge!.

Loud, blaring, raging, incessant bombast.

A similar quality had grated my nerves endlessly in Baz Luhrmann’s last fantasy epic, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). The hyperactive, MTV-paced editing and jump-cutting, seemed energetic and fresh for a few lively minutes, but very quickly I felt as though I would be like a Japanese child after watching Pokemon too close to the screen and would find myself rolling around the floor in a seizure.

This reaction to Luhrmann’s approach to far more traditional fare kept me from heading to the cinema to witness Moulin Rouge in its initial outing. The mixture of pans and raves that I read of the film seemed to suggest that this might well have been a more successful filmic venture, but I remained hesitant. In the end, I regretted missing it on the big screen. It seems to be the right place to have seen it.

On DVD, however, the production design still shines. The lurid, madcap visual style indeed reeks of MTV, where music videos, with their 3-5 minute running time, can create stunning complex visual statements in a fairly terse format. At two hours, Moulin Rouge clearly challenges the senses’ ability to comprehend so many images so rapidly unfolding. It’s an acid trip. A nightmare.

The hyperactivity swings between stunning, hilarious, annoying, and inane. There are genuinely sharp and exciting moments. But it took almost half an hour for me to get over the initial feeling of being overwhelmed for a few choice scenes to make their impression.

Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are both good in this film, but their performances get overwhelmed by the film’s style and pace. They are likeable figures in a toiling sea of chaos. And real connection to them is challenged heavily by the, well,…bombast.

The story, though “original”, is intensely cliche. Though, this doesn’t seem utterly unintentional. McGregor’s character’s passion is represented by spewing lines from love songs, from a pop era long yet to come from the film’s “period” setting.

Though, to call this a period film would also misconstrue it grossly. Luhrmann incorporates the figure of Toulouse-Lautrec, as played by John Leguizamo, as a caricature far more “invented” than biographical. It is, in many ways, a fantasy vision projected onto a past time and place, never intended to be read as “real”. The set designs, as all of the characters, are high-camp cartoons.

The music, too, is modern pop music, largely from the 1980’s, re-imagined, incorporated in often ironic transposition to its usual associations. One of the funniest scenes is when Jim Broadbent sings Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The song is transposed into the third person, as he croons about Satine, the courtesan, urging even more lewd suggestibility where the original hid behind synthesized pop.

The film’s music is borrowed, its storyline a cartoon of cliche, its characters stereotypes (the young writer, the tragic whore, the evil “duke”). Moulin Rouge! yearns ironically (and non-ironically) toward the past, while reconfiguring its borrowed parts via very modern production and technique. This seems to be its quandary. At what point does re-invention become “invention”. Is this the latest form of post-modernity?

In the end, I had mixed feelings about the film. Its initial “bombast” grated. But then it got going and its energy and visual inventiveness carried it along. And then, it’s last part languished as it tried to resuscitate its story.

It was better than Romeo + Juliet,…for what that is worth.

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