May 27, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Moulin Rouge! (2001)


Is there anyone who can sell genuine romanticism better than Ewan McGregor? Even when he plays criminals, you get the sense that he’s an okay guy who just followed the wrong path. He can also deliver lines that would sound cheesy in another’s hands with enough passion to convince us the emotions are real. His feelings sit at the heart of Moulin Rouge! and present Baz Luhrmann’s stylized visions with the right charm. Christian is a broke writer with few prospects, yet he’s convinced that the star performer Satine (Nicole Kidman) is the love of his life. A mistaken identity gives him the chance to meet her, and his mind is set. Their romance occurs within the exciting backdrop of the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre at the turn of the century. The sheltered guy falls in love with Satine and the entire cabaret, and his heart is set on making both a permanent part of his life.

Nominated for eight Oscars and adored by many, Moulin Rouge! is perfect for inclusion in the Blind Spots series. It’s only the second Luhrmann film that I’ve seen after Romeo & Juliet and is one of the more significant musicals of this century. I only knew the basics going in and was surprised by the mayhem of its first half hour. When Christian observes the performance of Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and his Diamond Dog Dancers, I was right with him in being amazed. Luhrmann uses all his tricks to energize the renditions of “Lady Marmalade”, a rap from Zidler, and even “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The famous Nirvana song was a surprise because it rarely appears in other works. In a strange way, the “here we are now/entertain us” chorus fits well in this theatrical environment.


The opening scene makes it clear that the events are fantasy. We begin in a theater with an orchestra playing as a film begins. The transition into the movie world is a clever device that’s handled well. This is a classic tale of love, death, and heartbreak with plenty of melodrama. It’s filled with over-the-top performances and flashy production numbers, yet it rarely is too much. Luhrmann’s a divisive filmmaker with plenty of devoted fans and haters, and I haven’t seen enough to make an assessment. I admire his audacity with this film to go for broke and not play it safe. There’s nothing subtle about this film, but that’s by design and is present throughout his work. Movies that assault the senses often don’t work for me, but there are exceptions when an original filmmaker is running the show. If you aren’t on board right away, it’s not going to work for you.

The use of well-known modern songs is tricky because they call attention to themselves. When characters sing “Rhythm of the Night”, “Diamond Dogs”, or “Like a Virgin”, we’re thinking as much about the song as the events on screen. Thankfully, the familiar choices add to the sense of fun of the entire production. While some of the choices are really on the nose, others like “Roxanne” and “Children of the Revolution” heighten the impact of the scenes. The Police tune is delivered by the raspy voice of Jacek Koman and combined with the tango song “Tanguera” to deliver a show-stopping number. The prominent original song is “Come What May”, which becomes the love theme of Christian and Satine. It’s a solid track, though it falls more into the conventional musical format than most of the others.


Moulin Rouge! is a stunning film, but it loses some momentum during its middle act. When we dig further into the love story and less into the show, the conventional side takes over. Richard Roxburgh is too much as the evil Duke on Monroth. He’s such a mustache-twirling villain that it’s hard to take anything he does seriously. I’m certain his persona is intentional and fits the mood that Luhrmann is trying to set, but it feels out of place. Jim Broadbent is so convincing as Zidler that it feels uneven when the Duke is threatening him.

What keeps the momentum on track is the fine work from McGregor and Kidman. I haven’t enjoyed much of her work in recent years, but she’s the right choice to play Satine. The other saving grace is the musical performances, which remain engaging and keep the story rolling to its grand end. I’m hardly an expert on the genre, but I keep finding strong examples that make me question if I should be digging further. I’m also more intrigued by Luhrmann, especially his recent adaption of The Great Gatsby. The best blind spot films send you on a quest to catch related works, and Moulin Rouge! is no exception. It’s not for everyone but deserves more attention from cinephiles like me who’ve avoided it. When you have that much artistry and energy on display, you can join the chorus or leap off the ship. This time, I was ready to stay on board and had a great time right to the end.

20 comments:

  1. One of the great films of the last decade. Certainly brought the musical back and in grand style. It's my favorite Baz Luhrmann film as it's over-the-top, it's full of style, doesn't take itself seriously, and has an engaging story with characters to root for.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad to hear that you're also a fan. I wasn't that interested in seeing it, which felt silly once it got rolling.

      Delete
  2. I haven't watched this in years, but it was one of the first films my husband and I went to see together, and I remember we used to sing along to the soundtrack on car journeys. Come What May was actually our wedding song, although (as is often the case with weddings songs) it doesn't resonate much with me these days. Still, a number of the songs are still on my playlists (I love the bolero over the end credits) and my husband and I still have a number of in-jokes surrounding this film.

    I love the daftness and pantomime of it all combined with, as you noted, some really great, emotion-driven performances. Fantastic film, and it's reminded me that I never got around to seeing Great Gatsby either...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, I can totally see Come What May as a wedding song. The soundtrack has a lot of memorable songs, especially in the first hour.

      Delete
  3. I hated this film and it has nothing to do with my ambivalence to musicals. I didn't like the anachronism throughout. More than that, I felt like it was a pure assault on me. There were moments after such attacks of noise, movement, and color that I could barely pay attention. I was simply relieved to not feel like I was being attacked by the film.

    Ultimately, I see this as little more than a Titanic wannabee. The Duke is Cal, Christian is Jack, the Moulin Rouge is the ship, and the fact that Satine has tuberculosis is the iceberg. Titanic was better because at least it had the ship sinking.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve, I knew that this was the type of film to divide people, and I had a strong feeling it wouldn't work for you. I didn't expect it to work for me. I agree that it's an assault, and I usually don't enjoy that. This was a surprise.

      Delete
  4. I love this beyond any measure and it's flawless in my mind, but I can still see how your criticism is appropriate. It's funny, a lot of people think they are opposed to musicals but then find themselves enjoying what they see once they see it (don't know if that's the case with you but still). This is my favorite Baz Luhrman film but I also really love Romeo+Juliet and enjoyed The Great Gatsby. Even Australia is okay-ish.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Despite any criticisms, I still really enjoyed it. I wouldn't say that I dislike musicals. They just aren't usually my genre of choice. Still, I've seen a lot of great musicals in the past few years.

      Delete
  5. One of my favorites. When the Nirvana song comes on in the big dance number it may sound stupid at first, but it's contagious (couldn't resist). I also haven't liked a whole lot from Nicole Kidman but she works well here, and there were actually a couple songs that I wasn't entirely familiar with when I first saw this movie so the version here is almost the definitive version for me, especially Roxanne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice one! It took me a minute to even recognize Nirvana because I wasn't expecting it. Madonna and The Police didn't seem like as big a stretch.

      Delete
  6. Such a tremendous movie, and I remember it so well when I saw it in theaters! Baz at his best, undoubtedly! Nicole and Ewan were such a perfect romantic pairing, but you're right...what can't Ewan do well??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've seen a few films where he felt out of place like Cassandra's Dream or the Star Wars prequels, but I agree that he has good range. I'm amazed that it took me this long to see this film. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
  7. Surprised you hadn't seen it yet. I love the film and happy to hear you enjoyed it so much as well Dan. I loved the villain...sure he stands out, but it gives the whole thing a bit of a comic feel which I don't mind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nostra, the villain was definitely on the comedy side, and that's okay. He just felt almost in a different movie. Still, it was a minor thing for me. For some reason, I expected not to like Moulin Rouge, so I avoided it. That wasn't the best move.

      Delete
  8. Nice review! There is something so intriguing and yet irking for me about Moulin Rouge. I love the music, acting, etc. and then there are some scenes that just don't fit - Like A Virgin scene sung by the Duke comes to mind. It can't be helped that I agree it is one stunning memorable film and one of my favorite modern musicals.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that Like a Virgin wasn't a highlight, and the main reason was The Duke. It's a movie where I can totally understand the hate, but it really worked for me. Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  9. Like you, movies that are assault on the senses don't usually work for me too. But maybe there is too much Bollywood in me, not to like this. Yes, this is over the top throughout but at least you know that outright and I feel like Luhrmann creates atmosphere enough to justify whole thing. And like most of the key players - Broadbent, McGregor, Kidman make it one of my favourite musicals.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that Luhrmann sets the stage at the start, so it doesn't feel jarring to enter this world. Not sure how I missed this comment for so long. Sorry about that, and thanks for stopping by the site!

      Delete
  10. Nice and a detailed review on Moulin Rouge Dan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks!

      Delete