“The greatest thing you will ever learn is just to love & be loved in return”: so begins “Moulin Rouge” as Parisien writer & hopeless romantic Christian (Ewan McGregor) types & reads out the story as it at the same time unfolds before us. “My writing was interrupted” (he types & reads, & I paraphrase) “when an unconscious Argentinian fell through the ceiling” ( cue said precipitation) “and a dwarf dressed as a nun ran into the room” (which he did).Thus the scene is set for an audacious, dazzling, deconstructed & reconstructed, exhilarating romp of a film: a romantic tragedy, a musical that is at the time old & new, as much an homage to times past as it is a herald of the 21st century.
It turns out that the 2 intruders (Koman as the narcoleptic Argentinian & Leguizamo as the painter Toulouse-Lautrec) were rehearsing a play called “Spectacular Spectacular”, itself a good description of the film, a play-within-a-play self-reference which becomes a continuing theme throughout – to the extent that the finale of the play becomes the finale of the film. Christian is promptly drafted in to rewrite the play, which is to be shown at a can-can cabaret theatre, the “Moulin Rouge”. There Christian meets & falls in love with the star turn, lady of dubious virtue & struggling wannabe Satine (Nicole Kidman). She’s a ‘Material Girl’ who apparently will do anything for money & for the furtherance of her career, & who is attempting to seduce a rich Duke (Roxburgh) to that end. Christian attempts to turn her with nothing to offer but his undying love & a beautiful singing voice. Can he save the girl & win her heart from the cold evil Duke & his money? Will love save the day? The outcome isn’t hard to guess – not least because it’s announced in the opening scene – but then it isn’t meant to be; this is not your average run-of-the-mill movie.
I wonder how Australian director & co-writer Baz Luhrman (“Strictly Ballroom”, “Romeo & Juliet”) & his colleagues came up with the idea for “Moulin Rouge”? I can just see him running it by the studio heads: “Right – I want to make to make a musical” (cue several executive jaws hitting the executive floor) “with fancy bright costumes & lavish sets & lots of dancing” (executive handkerchiefs are vigourously applied to perspiring executive foreheads) “- about love, & the triumph of love over money & power” (they’re starting to feel positively ill now) “and I want to kill off the heroine in the last scene!”* (those who are still conscious have run out of the room laughing hysterically). That must have been some sales pitch! How did he do it?
* not a spoiler – we’re told this in the opening scene
Well, it may have gone something like this (after the remaining execs have come to): “OK, we know this is the cynical 21st Century, nobody wants to watch a bunch of dandies prancing around singing about love. So if we’re going to be romantic let’s do it with knobs on; let the good guy be pure as the driven snow, let the bad guy be badder than bad! Let’s do it all with such gusto & energy & style that the viewer will be swept along in a tidalwave of sensation such that they won’t have a chance to stop & think that it might all just be a bit silly! Let’s dazzle the eyes with stunning images & the ears with stunning music! Let’s throw in surreal humour & post-modern cleverness, & enough musical references to keep them song-spotting for weeks! We know it’s overtly sentimental & cliched & unrealistic etc. etc. We know it, & we know that they know it – so let’s show them we know, & not only that, but that we know they know that we know – but that we love it anyway – & so can you! (With me so far?). After all, doesn’t everyone, deep down, like a good love story: ‘Everybody needs somebody to love’? As a wise man once said ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’” And so on…
Whatever they said, it worked & worked brilliantly, as I think does this film despite it’s utter implausibility. Visually this is absolutely stunning – the sets & costumes are impossibly colourful, lavish & detailed, the choreography inspired .The cinematography textbook has been thrown out here; the camera seems to have a life of it’s own, panning & zooming maniacally, & making a mockery of normal concepts of time & space. Along with many post-modern sight gags, there are moments of great theatrical power – chief of which to my mind is the moment when Christian accidentally gives the game away to the Duke about his Hamletesque play-within-a-play. The film exudes an intoxicating energy from the opening scene to the stunning denouement, & is in turns exciting, clever, funny, surreal, & profoundly moving.
The music is superb, & ranges from turn of the century vaudeville to Fat Boy Slim, Christina Aguilera & the queens of hip-hop, stopping along the way for opera, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bollywood (which is also a major influence on the film as a whole), The Beatles, T Rex, Bowie, Madonna, Nirvana, U2 & Beck – among many many others. This is a music lover’s paradise! Surpassing even the variety & quantity of the music used however is the clever & original way often completely disparate types of music are meshed together seamlessly in a way that is simply exhilarating. For instance: a can-can type number sung by the Moulin Rouge cast alternates with the audience singing back lines from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “here we are now, entertain us” etc.; Christian eventually wins over Satine in a conversation come musical duel comprised entirely of lines from pop songs – brilliantly imaginative & witty.
The quality of the music is also outstanding, not in the least due to the vocal performances of the stars themselves. Kidman holds a tune extremely well & combines beautifully with McGregor – who is simply magnificent. His is a voice of such control, power & tone that it is the equal of his considerable acting talent. His rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Jim Broadbent, playing the theatre owner, adds his stentorian baritone, while Koman growls his way magnificently through a version of The Police’s “Roxanne” – in duet with McGregor & a tango – that simply has to heard to be believed.
“Moulin Rouge” is a truly modern musical; Luhrman has taken hold of an old & cliched genre, injected it with 21st Century irony, imbued it with great energy, imagination & talent; & has produced a post-modern masterpiece, one of the most audacious & original films seen in a very long time – & one for which he deserves every success.
Is it ‘cheesy’? Yes. Is it sentimental? Yes. Is it OTT? Yes! But as I attempted to explain earlier, it knows it is, & knows we know, etc.; the irony has come full circle to where the film says to us “is the rampant Bohemian idealism of Truth, Beauty, Freedom & (above all) Love really such a bad thing?”, & does it in such a way that it’s bound to grab our attention. After all, to quote Christian & Satine (& Paul McCartney), “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs – and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”, & surely ‘making love not war’ has never been more appropriate than it is now.
Love it or loathe it – & you’re sure to do one or the other – for any lover of film this is compulsory viewing.
Me? I’ve fallen in love.