Real artifice. – Review

real artifice. – Review – movie review

Kent Jones

Words cannot adequately describe Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a seriously delirious romp through a century’s worth of pop music, spectacle, cultural ferment — and above all else, love.

There’s an exciting, brand-new object in the world, and it’s called Moulin Rouge.

It’s conceived and directed by Baz Luhrmann, whose card might read: “Cinematic DJ/Multimedia Impresario (with showmanship to burn)/Amateur historian (consumed with intellectual curiosity)/Provocateur/Popular Artist with Burning Desire to Connect.” Luhrmann’s mind darts, twists, pivots, and surges at the speed of light, just like his movie. “Look,” he told me, “I’m not for hire. I invite people into our world, and we’re very supportive, but it is the way we do things.” And Moulin Rouge is most definitely a world away from everything else in popular entertainment at this moment. A karaoke musical set in a gorgeous, kaleidoscopic, gravity-bending, myth-making perpetual-motion machine called “Paris 1900,” the film is at once historically grounded and 150% fantastical, immersed in film history yet giddily unconcerned with its traditionalist solemnities, culturally sophisticated yet destined to become the new favorite movie of 14-year-olds in Topeka. Every shot of Moulin Rouge is sumptuously textured; every note of music and line of dialogue, sung or spoken, gleams like cut crystal. But the film is also fast, radiantly fast. Cuts always come just before you expect them to, and there’s a wealth of detail, visual and narrative, packed into every one-and-a-half second shot. Unlike Terry Gilliam, who wants to make sure you see every droll invention, Luhrmann barely gives you enough time to register the stunning Moulin Rouge set, the lushly exotic, trysting hideaway known as the “Elephant,” or the “Absinthe-sizer” on which a smiling Erik Satie (Matthew Whittet) plunks out the title tune from The Sound of Music. As you watch this movie, your eye is forever trying to catch up with what it knows has just filled it to the brim.

The speed is partly strategic, reflecting the standard rhythm of attention for kids throughout the world, but it reflects Luhrmann’s temperament as well (he can’t stand narrative fat, although it’s malingering that really seems to drive him nuts). “I’m not fearful of the connection with MTV, but I wanted to make it about story,” he explained. Or, to be more precise; about “primary myth … so the audience knows how it’s going to end when it begins.” In Lurhmann’s self-described variation on the Orphean myth (“fundamentally, it’s about the act of growing up”), Ewan McGregor is Christian, the penniless writer who arrives in Montmartre just in time for the “summer of love” and falls in with a pack of raving Bohemians led by John Leguizamo’s impossibly nutty but finally adorable Toulouse-Lautrec. After a round of absinthe (and a vision of Kylie Minogue as the green fairy), he’s spirited away to the dancehall/bordello/wonderland known as the Moulin Rouge, and recruited to pen a suitably Bohemian storyline for something called “Spectacular Spectacular,” a showcase for the talents of star courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). In order to pay for the show and keep club owner Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) out of the poorhouse, Satine, who is dying of consumption, must pledge herself to a rich, vain, sexless, all-powerful Duke (Richard Roxburgh). When she falls in love with Christian, “Love” and “Money” join in a battle to the death.

It’s a synopsis that comes with built-in quotation marks: the second the film begins, as Leguizamo warbles the opening lines of “Nature Boy” into the Parisian night, the cultural archetypes and touchstones start leaping over each other like grasshoppers in midsummer. “When you’re dealing in mythological terms, things must be achingly clear,” explained Luhrmann. So Broadbent’s Zidler is Cabaret’s MC crossed with French Cancan’s Danglard crossed with every jolly, overstuffed impresario played by Frank Morgan or S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall; Roxburgh’s Duke is an italicized version of the effete, clownish suitor, exemplified by John Howard in The Philadelphia Story or Daniel Day-Lewis in A Room with a View; McGregor’s Christian is a twinkly-eyed male ingenue extraordinaire, every wide-eyed romantic naif you’ve ever seen rolled into one; Kidman’s Satine is a little Blue Angel, a little Lulu, and a lot of Marguerite/Violetta, accented with Marilyn Monroe and topped off for good measure with Madonna’s Material Girl — “a comment upon a comment” commented Luhrmann — and in the bargain Kidman adds her own kittenish, Ann-Margret-like head tilt whenever she sings to McGregor. Here’s Luhrmann’s passionate assessment of all this ecstatic mixing and matching: “There’s no preciousness about referencing anything in classical or popular culture as long as it serves the revelation of the human condition, through the story.” Fair enough.

But it would all add up to zero if not for Luhrmann’s extraordinary talent. There are plenty of digital age movies like Pleasantville, manufactured by people who know how to throw together a provocative stew of cultural associations and heady visual concepts, conveniently sidestepping the messy unpredictability of human affairs. The trick is to know the difference between what can be controlled and what needs to be nursed and encouraged, between the digitally malleable and the solidly human. Luhrmann not only understands the difference but, unlike his fellow digital-era maestro James Cameron, is good at both (actually, there’s a witty visual nod to Titanic in Moulin Rouge — like almost everything else in the film, there’s barely time enough to catch it). Whereas the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet is merely assumed and strictly conceptual, the chemistry between Kidman and McGregor is excitingly real. Most of all when they sing to each other.

There’s been plenty of speculation about the waning of the movie musical over the last 40 years, and the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that, at a certain point, it became difficult for Westerners to accept the convention of people breaking into song and dance. “It’s so unrealistic” — an often-repeated “observation,” inanely obvious. Until you start to sense the poignance behind it. At a certain point during the ascendance of rock culture, music was no longer to be sung or made but listened to. At best it could serve as the accidental soundtrack to our lives from the radio or the stereo or the Walkman, working in fleeting harmony with our actions (and paving the way for a new job in movies: “Music Supervisor”). Which meant that the gap between the way we lived and what we could imagine had grown smaller and smaller. Singing was for the squares who went to church, and dancing was a way of being private together, turned away from the world, like sex.

So, how to revitalize the musical impulse. How did Luhrmann and his team – including his best pal and co-writer Craig Pearce, his wife and production/costume designer Catherine Martin, his producer Martin Brown and his editor Jill Bilcock — create the conditions that would allow young, contemporary, lifestruck audiences to accept characters breaking into song and dance?

First of all, there’s that primary myth. Second of all, there’s the unique universe of Moulin Rouge: giddily elastic, endlessly diverting, and weightless — the movie plays as one deliriously unbroken movement, like freefalling through a magic tunnel that’s apt to expand, contract, snap back or stretch like taffy at a moment’s notice. Luhrmann has a DJ’s feel for rhythm, and uses digital technology to devastating effect: sound and image become one gorgeous entity, and everything can turn on a dime (like Wisit Sasantieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger, Moulin Rouge’s Thai analogue, this is a “digital” movie that feels artisanal). As McGregor sings his first note, lights turn on all over Paris as if by magic, and Luhrmann gets the same kind of lilting groove that DJ Shadow manages with his constructed “drum solos” on Endtroducing. Then there are the songs, mostly love songs, or actually pieces of songs that we all know, songs you thought you’d never want to hear again, written as text into the script and rewritten when necessary, to create a seamless whole. When Christian enters the Moulin Rouge for the first time, it’s the ultimate club experience: wide open space, pounding rhythm, a hypnotic barrage of pure color and movement. Zidler is rapping “You Can Cancan” over the dancers singing “Lady Marmalade” while the audience of leering, middle-aged, top-hatted night owls is growling out the chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A little later McGregor is romancing Kidman with Elton John’s “Your Song,” and one of the most overplayed “classic radio” staples suddenly feels new again, with an all-stops-out arrangement and delivery that’s pure corn (for those who feel that rock music in 1900 Paris is some kind of postmodern violation, just examine the history of the musical: do you really think they were singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in St. Louis back in 19037). When they meet later up on the roof, there’s a call and response under the stars, love vs. money: “You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs,” she sings, and he comes back with “I look around me and I seeeee it isn’t so.” We’re on safe ground, with songs that we all know, moving at a lightning pace. But because the songs are broken up and thoroughly contextualized within the story, they lose the solitude that’s behind most rock music, that feeling of moving inward rather than outward, that’s been the curse of most rock musicals. As Luhrmann himself put it, “With MTV, you tend to have a lot of not storytelling songs, but internal, poetic thought, like Madonna singing Frozen.” In other words, an endless series of soliloquies. Whereas here, the characters do their best to communicate with one another, and the pressure builds until they’re left with no choice but to sing. Which means that maybe the supposedly innovative Dancer in the Dark marks the end of an old era while Moulin Rouge marks the beginning of a new one.

Most excitingly of all, there are the actors. Like any good director, Luhrmann understands that they’re the ones taking the risks, not him. “I create an environment of incredible security because their work is about fear: it’s a high-wire act. And I have to start with a safety net and say, Go on girl, you’ll be alright, and then slowly take the safety net away.” McGregor and Kidman work through big, bold gestures here — as the phrase used to go, they really know how to sell it, and they make you realize that nothing feels corny if you’re sufficiently confident and uninhibited. “We’ve seen so many photocopies upon photocopies upon photocopies of Marion Brando that actually it’s gone from being a revelation of naturalism to a series of defenses,” observed Luhrmann. “In a way those two kids up there are incredibly vulnerable. These days, if you don’t seem like a hard-ass bad boy, then you’re not interesting. So it’s very risky and revealing.” It’s been a while since screen lovers were this visibly and touchingly open to one another. When McGregor, with his wide-eyed little-boy face, sings to Kidman for the first time, it’s a wondrous sight to watch her defenses as both an actress and a character dissolve into thin air. You have to go back to Borzage for such devotion to purely human chemistry. That Broadbent is terrific comes as no surprise, but Roxburgh, last seen here as Dougray Scott’s scowling M:I-2 henchman, should be a revelation to American audiences. His prissy, prancing Duke is a grand comic creation, and he has one moment of pure genius: as he convinces Christian and Zidler to change the ending of the story within the story to suit his fancy, he makes pitiful, mincing circles with his delicate hands.

Will Moulin Rouge speak to audiences with the same kind of millennial urgency as Titanic? Does the Orphean theme finally expand to mythical proportions? I’m not sure. The one emotional area where Luhrmann pulls his punches is Satine’s debasement at the hands of the Duke, which is telegraphed rather than articulated (with visual nods to Pabst’s Pandora’s Box) during the film’s only failed scene, a tango version of “Roxanne”: it’s the one moment in the film where the choreography is obscured MTV-style through the cuts, where purely filler shots (Leguizamo caressing his absinthe, sweaty dancers waiting around) are employed to keep the rhythm going, and where the emotion feels more ramped up than felt. McGregor and Kidman are definitely up for the horrific side of the story, but I have a feeling that Luhrmann was afraid of darkening the canvas too much.

So we’re left with a surging, soulful hymn to the glory of true love, and that’s more than good enough. Not to mention five or six thrillingly kinetic, vibrant, utterly modern musical numbers. “Spectacular Spectacular,” where the artistic team pitches the story of the show to the Duke, is an old-fashioned, Bandwagon-esque comic showstopper (set to the tune of “Cancan”) which moves at a hilariously frenetic, hair-singeing pace; the Bollywood finale is entrancing; McGregor and Kidman’s final exchange of their secret song is the pop operetta we’ve always dreamed of; and that “Cancan” opener is a stunner. At one point the number stops dead, Zidler flips a card and the dancers reassemble and the rhythm jumps from deliriously fast to ecstatically faster — and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Luhrmann pulls off the neatest trick in years: his movie is heavy with riches, and it soars. Baz Luhrmann is our Santa Claus, and here’s his greatest gift: he’s made a movie from which we’ll all come out singing … to each other.

Kent Jones is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group