Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Aug 17, 2009

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

by Devan Scott

If Baz Luhrmann lived by an ethos, it might very well be “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing”. His films have always been exercises in brazen excess.
Strictly Ballroom, his 1992 directorial debut, was about as over-the-top as a film about deranged Australian dancers made on a shoestring budget could possibly hope to be. Eight years later, some crazed executive over at Miramax had the bright idea of giving this guy an actual budget to work with. The result? Moulin Rouge, which is about as over-the-top as a big-budget Hollywood musical filled to the brim with special effects could possibly be. This is to say it’s so ridiculously excessive that nothing before or since has ever come anywhere near close to being as enormously bombastic and overdone as this film. It’s fitting that a song by Queen is prominently featured, as this is practically the Bohemian Rhapsody of movie musicals; stylish, operatic, energetic, insubstantial, incredibly overproduced, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Musicals generally fall into one of two camps. The first camp includes productions which attempt to feature grandiose musical numbers while still maintaining a veneer of dramatic weight and realism (See:
The Sound of Music). The results are often exceedingly problematic, as bridging the gap between extravagant musical numbers and believable drama is no easy task, and one aspect or the other usually ends up feeling out-of-place. The second camp consists of productions which totally eschew any semblance of realism and gravitate towards the absurd (See: Singin’ in the Rain). Moulin Rouge falls into the latter camp with a vengeance. The whole thing is so outrageous that the musical numbers never feel forced or unnatural as they would in a more down-to-earth production; if it were any less audacious, it simply wouldn’t work.

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However, the downside to all this is that the film is robbed of any real emotional weight. Sure, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are charismatic and likeable as the central couple, but there’s no genuine emotion or pathos to be found here. This is a melodrama through and through; characters belt sweeping songs about love and loss, cry over lost lovers, and pout, but we never really feel for them. It’s like trying to stage a believable romance in a Looney Tunes cartoon; it would never work. The good news is the filmmakers seem to have realized this. The romance present here is nothing less than preposterous; it’s superficial, but it fits the film’s style and plot well. And this is one paper-thin plot. It’s an exaggerated tragic romance staged against the backdrop of a bordello’s doomed attempts to become a legitimate theater. However, it’s hard to fault the film for its story when the way it goes about telling it is so much fun.

Considering the theatricality of the whole affair, it makes sense that Moulin Rouge would have a lot of fun blurring the gap between the stage and reality. A great deal of the film’s plot centers on the production of a play by the main characters, and the line between the realities of the play-within-a-movie and the character’s actual lives begins to rapidly disappear as the play nears completion, eventually vanishing altogether. It’s the film’s most effective dramatic conceit, and it’s the only idea that the film bothers to explore in any real depth. It even brings Moulin Rouge within spitting distance of becoming an actual reflexive commentary on its own medium – this, however, doesn’t appear to be a priority, and it’s a minor shame that the film doesn’t take this idea further.

Like practically all musicals, the main raisons d’etre here are the musical numbers, and they don’t disappoint in the slightest. They’re all bombastic, overblown, anachronistic, and incredibly creative. The film takes modern pop tunes – the soundtrack features the likes of Nirvana, Madonna, The Police, David Bowie, Elton John, U2, and, yes, KISS – and marries them to choreography and production that recall the works of Gene Kelly at their most ostentatious and surreal, only taken ten steps further and combined with modern editing not unlike that seen in most music videos. Keep in mind this film is set in 19th-century Paris, and the full scope of Baz Luhrmann’s utterly crazy vision should become clear.

Crazy is the operative word here – this is a film that clearly has no qualms about circumventing all of logic regarding character or plot development in the name of simply being as entertaining and unique as possible. Baz Luhrmann knows no restraint; normally, this would be the mark of an untalented filmmaker, but with this film he’s managed to create such a singular work of unrelenting, kaleidoscopic sensory overload that it’s impossible not to give him all due credit for sheer visionary bravado. And, incredibly, despite the excess, Moulin Rouge never feels as if it’s about to be crushed under its own weight or threatening to overstay its welcome. At the very least, it’s a hugely entertaining bit of tightly crafted, unbelievably imaginative cinema, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Any film set in the 1800s that still finds time to include David Bowie, Queen, a showtune version of Like a Virgin, and Roxanne as sung by someone who sounds not entirely unlike a Spanish Tom Waits is A-OK in my book.


Laurel said...

I completely agree. This movie is one that I can only re-watch very's almost too "in-your-face" for me...but an amazing work!
Thanks for an apt review, Devan!

Christina said...

I haven't watched it since I was 14, but back then I definitely felt the emotional weight. I'll have to watch it again to find out if that was just the teenage angst.

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