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.