Screening Log #64: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, and Richard Roxburgh




Somewhat apropos of the recent spate of Great Gatsby related publicity material surfacing of late – or, at least, in the light of this marketing which allows this piece some slice of relevancy – I first encounter Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Having been precisely in the target adolescent demographic for 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, and having found some measure of enjoyment in his reframing of that particular story, I had “outgrown” the pop-influenced spectacle his style promised to bring to Moulin Rouge! upon its release. However, curiousity, time, Luhrmann’s re-emergence into the public’s eye with his new film, and the film’s place in my partner’s heart (mostly the latter) conspired to move me to watch it.

Framed from its beginning as a theatrical production – even the 20th Century Fox intro spiel is included – replete with live orchestra conductor and opulent red velvet curtains that open to reveal the movie, which is then further framed as taking place in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The first few seconds of the film are filtered to resemble aged film appropriate to the time frame in question before blending into full colour. This antiquated aesthetic is quickly left behind for an aesthetic that quickly shrugs off the earlier suggestion of a reliance on the theatrical for a, perhaps, over-zealous embracing of the visual and auditory abilities of the cinematic medium.

The film begins with bearded and bedraggled Christian, Ewan McGregor, writing on a typewriter in a bohemianly sparse apartment that his story will be a story of love. He flashes back to his departure from England to Paris, Montmartre, specifically, to embrace the new bohemian artistic lifestyle, to create poetry that speaks to freedom, truth, beauty and love. He falls in with – or, more accurately, is fallen in on by – of artists, including no less than Toulouse-Lautrec and a narcoleptic Argentinian, who are constructing a piece of theatre called Spectacular Spectacular. To procure a venue and funding for this venture, the group must venture to the titular Moulin Rouge where, naturally, Christian falls in love with the venue’s star, Satine, Nicole Kidman. Due to a mix-up, Christian is mistaken for the rich Duke, Richard Roxburgh, who Satine is meant to seduce to procure funding to convert the burlesque house into a proper theatre. During their first, mistaken identity addled, encounter, Luhrmann builds humour by juxtaposing Christian’s desire to recite poetry to Satine with her assumption that he wants to make love. Christian then proceeds to sing a medley that moves Satine into desiring him before his identity as the not-Duke is revealed.

The pair’s blooming love affair weaves around the Duke’s desire for Satine, in secret and largely through song and montage, as the company, having secured financing from the Duke, weaves together a love story of an Indian courtesan and a sitar player and a wealthy maharaja that rather obviously reflects their own state. Luhrmann’s tone veers wildly through this first half of the film; the musical numbers anachronistically meld together songs by contemporary artists as disparate as Elton John and Nirvana while slapstick visual and auditory elements pepper brutally quick cuts and seemingly scattershot – and too-frequent – employments of slow motion, time-lapse, and CGI fantasy scenarios. The Duke is painted as a farcically inept and unperceptive non-threat and the meat of the story, the romance between Christian and Satine, is relegated to montages and musical numbers, subjugating the emotional investment of the viewer to the manic spectacle of the film.

This initial aesthetic cedes to a more serious tone as the film progresses and the secret affair between the pair becomes complicated by the suddenly, and now unconvincingly menacing, Duke. However, as the situation and the threats against the pair become more dire, the start of the film–unfocused and superficial–undermines a large amount of the emotional impact that the film obvious hopes to evoke. The very subject of the film, love, hangs curiously abstract and undefined, even as it relates to Christian and Satine’s relationship and, as such, Luhrmann is unable to develop a satisfactory amount of tension. The actors show consistently admirable dedication to their work and the costumes and production design are artfully constructed, however the surface materials are as deep as the film’s construction allow it to go. The film’s inability to maintain a focus or consistent tone prevent it from achieving the sort of emotional catharsis that it aims for through its loose evocation of love via the clichés of popular music. Indeed, the film’s insistence on anachronism provides a further element that obfuscates the emotional involvement of the viewer. While there is some pleasure to be had in the manner pop songs are welded together, or adapted, their involvement, like the rest of the film’s wildly varying aesthetic and technical insistences, works against immersion on a deeper emotional level; I found myself wondering if Christian was, in fact, a time traveler re-purposing his pop culture knowledge to his advantage in turn of the century Paris.

Moulin Rouge!, in the end, enacts the very same danger that it warms against. Luhrmann, by constructing his film with such an intense – if entirely restless – focus on aesthetics, shapes a film very much meant to appeal to the senses and entice the viewer in the same manner that a courtesan would. From his empty framing gesture, to the deployment of period based on aesthetic value more than thematic merit, and the film’s refusal to profess any single position on the nature of love, preferring instead to display unanchored signifiers of love rather than the thing itself, Luhrmann positions his film as an object to be admired from afar, beautifully made but impossible to truly engage. The clientele of the Moulin Rouge are legion and it must appeal to the desires of each; you may love it, but also must be aware that on closer inspection there is perhaps less there than it seemed like there would be. A film that exists as an indulgence, best to be enjoyed at arm’s length.

One Response to “Screening Log #64: Moulin Rouge! (2001)”
  1. Scott says:

    I always said that it would be an amazing film if it ended after 20mins.

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