This film is a mess. A beautiful, cinematic, saccharine and unadulterated mess. It is also a perfectly realized mess, something that could only come from the feverish mind of post-modern prodigy Baz Luhrmann. While I am not a complete Luhrmann apologist, based almost primarily in his excessive appropriation of the misunderstood artist moniker, one that he claims is affirmed by his own vilification for 'ruining' classic texts. While this is debatable, his visionary work Moulin Rouge! stands in a world all of its own, between its mash-up of classic songs into a GirlTalk like musical, or his near seizure inducing visual layering, everything Lurhmann offers his viewers is potent and pleasure inducing. Between a haptic camera and quickened heartbeat at work in this film it is quite easy to lose out to the visuals of the film and overlook the very well executed, even if decidedly simplistic, story. I have not seen all of Luhrmann's work and while I am holding out high hopes for Strictly Ballroom I am playing it safe in assuming that this is his current masterpiece. Sure The Great Gatsby has an equal pacing, but problems like Toby MacGuire's acting and a hesitancy to go down a few of the darkest corners of the novel lead to a film that is not entirely perfect. Moulin Rouge! is not perfect either, but damn if it is not as close to being such as possible. I understand that the style of Luhrmann is not for everyone and I am willing to concede to this point of critique in some cases, simply attributing the frantic and overly referential nature of his oeuvre as a point of frustration. In some cases, however, the critiques being mounted against this particular filmmaker are from individuals who also happen to think Quentin Tarantino is a consistently rewarding and masterful filmmaker, never seeing past his equally pastiched and kitschy veneer to realize he is doing precisely the same things in his films. If critics and cinephiles alike are to concede to Tarantino being the bad boy of the post-modern styling, then it should also be extended to suggest that Lurhmann is in contrast its angst-laden rebel, the latter using culture in a far more curious and, I cannot believe I am saying this, far less pretentious manner.
Moulin Rouge! follows the experiences of Christian (Ewan McGregor) a struggling writer who has moved to the most rundown parts of Paris in hopes of discovering a space where he can blossom as a wordsmith, telling his disappointed father that his pursuits are purely inspired by the notion to understand the complexities of love. The problem with Christian's noble aspirations is that he has never himself been in love. Moving, however, into a dilapidated apartment, Christian immediately comes in contact with a variety of weird and wonderful characters including the squeaky voiced Toulouse-Lautrec (John Lequizamo) who is part of an acting troupe that is headed by the bombastic but keen Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). When they realize that Christian is indeed skilled as a writer they employ him to help compose a play, hoping that his prowess will convince local burlesque dancer and object of affection for many Satine (Nicole Kidman) to join in the production. By using a combination of his poetry and his actual attractions, along with the fortune of being mistaken as a duke, Christian immediately attains the affections of Satine. However, when the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh) emerges things prove troublesome as Satine is quickly required to avert her burgeoning desires for Christian and replicated them, if falsely, towards The Duke. This is made all the more troublesome by Satine's suffering from tuberculosis. The Duke an admittedly possessive man threatens to buy out the Moulin Rouge club from Zidler should Satine not agree to be his property, the worried Zidler agreeing immediately. While Satine understands the gravitas of the situation, she and Christian continue to use the guise of preparation for the play as a means to further their relationship, stealing kisses and glances behind The Duke's back. When Satine's sickness immobilizes her for an entire evening, The Duke assumes her to be galavanting with Christian leading to his final demand that he be removed from the picture entirely, in turn leading to Zidler telling Satine that she must end things with Christian. However, when Satine does this, Christian refuses to accept this as a reality and crashes the final production one that is garish and almost nearly fatal. Tragically, however, even when their love is rekindled, the reality of Satine's sickness causes her ultimate demise, though not before forgiveness is afforded to all involved.
Upon doing some very basic research for this film, I discovered that Moulin Rouge! is often referred to as a jukebox musical. This is a term often applied to musicals, specifically theatrical, that appropriate the songs of one artist into a larger narrative, notable examples including ABBA, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Yet, Moulin Rouge! is a bit more complicated than this and as Baz Luhrmann has suggested, he intended his work to be palatable to the MTV Generation of music listeners. This claim helps to better ground the idea of the film, one that is both sporadic and hybrid in its musical composition, indicative of a TRL Top Ten, while also heavily visual, bowing to the music video generation, wherein how the music looks plays as much into the nature of the song itself. Think about the seeming inextricable connection between Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball as a song and as a music video. Of course, nearly every musical intends for the visual nature of the film to take precedence, but often does so in a linear and formalist structure, wherein Luhrmann rejects this for layering and subtext. Indeed, the film begins by showing a stage, thus calling attention to the projected nature of the film, but within the film there are often extra layers of staging, whether it be the wonderfully lavish production of the play in the closing moments of the film or the various dioramas that appear either in possession of the characters or as spaces in which the characters occupy. It is in this execution that Luhrmann's use of special effects becomes quite interesting. For a filmmaker like Tarantino this is almost always used to emphasize a degree of violence, moving it from bloody to hyper-violent. In contrast is Luhrmann's invocation of the cgi to achieve a degree of meta-theatrics, already at play agains the layering of music, this causes the film to work almost like a gyroscope always rotating and viewers attempt to keep focus on the center. Indeed, when this is achieved it is often the most climactic moment in the film where everything comes to a jarring halt evoking emotion by stripping away the melodramatic elements. Indeed, this is perhaps as post-modern as the musical can get, by working in the opposite direction from the hyper showy to the simplistic. Moulin Rouge! really is quite a fascinating work of cinema.
Key Scene: The Kismet-inspired final production scene is magical.
I am sure quite a few of my readers are opposed to Luhrmann for various reasons and may have already encountered this film in the past. I would strongly urge you to revisit this film and consider it from a counter-structuralist standpoint. It is as impassioned an argument for rethinking the language of cinema in the post-digital age as one can hope to find.