Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Nobody likes a medley. Nature abhors a medley, and so does Art.
Spare us the medleys.
By last winter or maybe before, TV ads had repeatedly informed
us that a new film "from visionary director Baz Luhrmann" was imminent.
Again and again the voice that booms portentously from movie trailers
let us know that the visionary film Moulin
Rouge was on its way, it was coming, it was about to be
released and there was nothing we could do about it. It began to
sound threatening, this "visionary" chant, like a warning, like
Luhrmann was a Nostradamus with news of our destruction, news which
for some reason he'd decided to impart in the form of a can-can
musical with Nicole Kidman.
Luhrmann's previous effort, a fledgling visionary work called William
Romeo + Juliet,
which came out five years ago, made it seem unlikely that his latest
would be a revelation. Sure, it would probably be a self-consciously
postmodern hash of other people's leftovers, served with candy hearts
instead of potatoes, but visionary? You hear "visionary," you picture
William Blake, not one of those three-layer greeting cards that plays
"Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" when you open it. To remind us that
lost love conquers all if you turn it into art--especially when the
movie's "all" conquers whatever love it meant to evoke--isn't a revelation,
even if it admits it's a cliché and is proud of it.
Les fleurs du mélange.
So maybe "visionary" is not the right word. But it sounds nice,
"visionary." Maybe it's in Luhrmann's contract. He has a Visionary
Clause. You say my name, you say "visionary" first. So officially
anyway, he's a visionary. Why not?
Doesn't cost the studio a dime. Here's a news item from France,
however, that cost the studio a pretty penny in promotions and party
decorations. At the Cannes film festival, Moulin Rouge got
a six-minute standing ovation. In their day they have booed Antonioni's
L'Avventura, Dreyer's Gertrud, Bresson's L'Argent
and Jarmusch's Dead Man, but in 2001 they rose to their feet
for Moulin Rouge and stayed there for one-tenth of an hour.
Doesn't that prove Luhrmann's bona fide? He's a visionary all right:
He sees things you don't. He saw France, he saw Nicole Kidman's
underpants, evidently he's also seen Children of Paradise, Kiss
Me Kate, A Clockwork Orange, One from the Heart, City of Lost Children
and Hawaii Five-O.
That's right, Hawaii Five-O. How's that for pomo pastiche?
Stealing from those other movies, that's predictable; add Hawaii
Five-O, you get a standing O. Thus in Moulin Rouge, Ewan
McGregor poses on his writer's-garret balcony in 1899 Paris like
he's Steve McGarrett in the credits to the beloved '70s cop show;
the camera flies over the city right into his hairstyle. Was it
the garret/McGarret connection that inspired Luhrmann to swoop like
that? McGregor, McGarrett? McGregor's character is named Christian,
Steve McGarrett was played by Jack Lord. Both characters approach
their work religiously. They loom over vice-ridden cities and look
down, and only they can make order from the confusion below. In
the end, love's not for them. They have a higher calling.
O.K., maybe this is an unproductive line of inquiry. You don't
question a visionary, you just receive his vision and you luxuriate
in it until you're puckered. Luhrmann's frenetic, overstuffed approach
is designed to thwart criticism or even reflection. He insists that
his film's hollowness is beside the point, or that without the emptiness
at its core his film wouldn't be the celebration he intended. For
all its undemanding visual opulence, Moulin Rouge demands
that you never look away, for fear that you might miss something
even more dazzling than what came before. But in the end it's not
the kind of film you watch, it's the kind of film you have on. The
feeling that it's having you on is as inescapable as its oppressive
production design, a claustrophilic scheme seemingly inspired by
a board game Vincent Price used to advertise in the '70s.
Moulin Rouge is a musical without a complete musical number,
a dance film without a dance sequence, a film about a writer that
wasn't written. It was cobbled together by choosing only the most
obvious post-Beatles song lyrics to animate its repetitive situations,
and it tries to convince you that it's reinvigorating those song
lyrics as it embraces pop cliché so it can bring you a higher
It owes a lot to Madonna, who's invoked in its music-video style
and by quoting lyrics from her songs. When Nicole Kidman is introduced
as Satine, principal dancer at the Moulin Rouge and noted
courtesan, an ominous version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"
passes dubbed through her lips, and Luhrmann has her combine it
with a line from "Material Girl." To fully appreciate how clever
this is, you have to know that Madonna's video for that song recreated
Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds" number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Above Kidman's head, a sign at the top of the stage reads "Diamants,"
and the narration (of course there's narration) informs us of the
dancers that the habitués of the nightclub "called them the
diamond dogs." Digital diamond dust falls over the scene, diamond
jewelry is proffered and snatched everywhere. We're unavoidably
reminded that diamonds are forever, in case we forgot.
This kind of sensory overkill--where what is seen is said and what
is said is seen--proves Luhrmann thinks his audience is both desperate
and easily entertained; that it has an attention span shorter than
John Leguizamo's throwaway dwarf character Toulouse; that it doesn't
know how to read and would be offended if it were asked to. When
McGregor types out "The End" as the film ends, he reads it on the
soundtrack, too. Just to be sure the audience knows what to do at
that point, the sound of applause accompanies a falling curtain.
Kidman, who also recalls Rita Hayworth in Gilda (she can't
help it), is all alone out there; Luhrmann, so busy splashing everything
with the froth used to dye carnations and turn beer green, forgot
to direct her. Her voice is disembodied, piped-in. McGregor offers
no help. Their scenes together play like they were shot at the opposite
ends of a tunnel. They're sexless and dull even when embracing naked.
The other actors are displayed in boxes and piled up. Crammed into
small spaces the better to make funny faces in close-up, none of
them seem like they were ever in the same room together. They're
reduced to moustaches and lipstick. A whole troupe of dancers is
on hand; none of them is given a personality or dialogue. Luhrmann
cuts every scene so there is no scene, just a series of music video
fragments, and no emotion creeps in, although the characters weep
and wail and kick.
Jim Broadbent, a likable actor cast as the nightclub's impresario,
comes off as so desperate to escape Luhrmann's Captain Kangaroo
conception of his character that he channels the prop-comic Rip
Taylor to keep himself interested. Richard Roxburgh's Duke, a stock
villain, would've been better portrayed by Spinal Tap's Michael
McKean. At least he knows that to be funny, you don't act funny.
No one is funny in Moulin Rouge. When Luhrmann directs them,
he directs them to be hilarious.
The words "amoral" and "bohemian" are constantly rolled around
in this film's mouth, but Moulin Rouge is as amoral and bohemian
as My Little Pony. Its art-vs.-commerce plot is designed
to touch the heart of the 11-year-old girl inside the window dresser
in all of us, and it has all the tragic romance of a date with Poet
Ken in Consumptive-Prostitute Barbie's Montmartre Playhouse, complete
with all the accessories your parents could wrap up at Christmas.
By the film's end, you hope for the triumph of commerce over art,
surely the film's subconscious message all along. Moulin Rouge
seeks to convince us that, today, Elton John and Baudelaire amount
to the same thing, and it makes you never want to hear the word
"spectacular" again, much less see one. If its goal was to reveal
the emptiness of postmodern bricolage at the blockbuster level,
it has succeeded. By any other standard, it's a mess. Its cleverness
is greasy. The medleys in a Shriner's parade are more thrilling.
When you're a visionary, there's a lot of stuff you don't have to
do. Baz Luhrmann has exercised his prerogative, and how.
A.S. Hamrah also writes for Hermenaut and
Suck.com. He can be reached at [email protected]