Tuesday, 23 October 2012

FIVE STAR FILM: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

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Moulin Rouge! (Australia/ UK/ USA, 2001)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Moulin Rouge! raises an interesting question: is it possible for a film to be simultaneously a genuine favourite and a guilty pleasure? All attempts to make sense of Baz Luhrmann's musical through reason alone will come to nought, leading us to believe that it can only be enjoyed ironically. And yet the film is so unrelentingly joyous that you would need a heart of stone not to like it with a straight face (well, a grinning straight face at that).

Normally in my reviews I'm able to provide a series of rational arguments for why a film is good or bad, and when I give a film the highest possible rating, those arguments need to be all the more watertight. But while I can point to individual aspects which add to its overall effect, this is a film that goes for the heart (and the jugular) rather than the head. It's fast, fluid, flashy, funny and farcical, all at the same time. All I know for sure is that I love every fibre of its mad and hyperactive being.
Even if you don't like Moulin Rouge! as a story or an experience, you have to admit that there is something brilliant (or at least interesting) in Luhrmann's central conceit. The film has two sources of inspiration: Luhrmann's experience of a Bollywood film while working in India, and the rave and club culture of the 1990s. In creating this film Luhrmann set himself the modest task of trying to capture the high drama and comedy of Bollywood, while also showing how the Bohemian movement at the end of the 19th century mirrors the musical one at the end of the 20th. It's an audacious task, but after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, we have come to expect nothing less.
While in lesser hands the film would have been a complete disaster, with Luhrmann we have one thing to guide us through: he believes in the project to the point of utter madness. The Moulin Rouge he gives us has all the characteristics of the rave culture with a 19th-century sensibility. The dancing is aggressive, the drug use is endemic, the costumes are revealing, and the dance floor is a place where men of utterly different backgrounds can freely mingle for as long as their uppers hold out. Luhrmann replicates the intense atmosphere of a club and then garnishes it with lavish period detail, complete with the broader, more melodramatic acting style that was in vogue in the 1890s.
From this point of view, it makes complete sense for the film to be edited hyperactively. You might complain that constantly cutting every few seconds means that we don't get to take in the gorgeous sets or costumes as fully as we would like. But to do this would undercut the spirit of the age which the film is depicting. These are the days of absinthe and the Great Binge, a revolution led by artists who were reckless and impulsive: they were rebelling against the slow, dull pace of aristocratic life which the Duke represents. We are meant to feel like we've entered a trip - and if we feel a little bad coming down, or have a headache afterwards, that's all part of the experience.
Another common criticism, aside from the editing, is the lack of original songs. It is notable that the first musical to be Oscar-nominated for 10 years has only one original song, and 'Come What May' itself was disqualified on a technicality. Indeed, if you were feeling particularly cynical, you could hold Moulin Rouge! to account, not just for the resurgence in musical films like Chicago and Nine, but for the growing trend of musicals which are essentially bad karaoke of pop songs, such as We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages.
Whatever truth may be in this claim, your view on Moulin Rouge! itself will depend largely on your view of jukebox musicals as a whole. They can be simply bad karaoke, like the examples I've mentioned, but they can be good if their songs are used to advance the plot, however bizarrely. You could even argue that all Quentin Tarantino's films are essentially elaborate jukebox musicals, since the music plays such a big part in connecting the various characters and move us from one arc to the next. Certainly no-one complains about Tarantino's lack of original music (well, apart from me).
The song choices in Moulin Rouge! work brilliantly because they are tied to a story which is so far over-the-top that it actually makes a crazy kind of sense. While his contemporary Rob Marshall began his career as a choreographer, Luhrmann's background is in opera: he is used to dealing with stories and character arcs which are simultaneously profound and absurd. In isolation, it might seem ridiculous to have 19th-century dancers gyrating around to 'Lady Marmalade', or Richard Roxburgh and Jim Broadbent dueting on Madonna's 'Like A Virgin'. But like Flash Gordon or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the film knows how ridiculous it is, and encourages us to embrace it - and once we tumble into its own private Wonderland, everything seems strangely normal.
What we have in Moulin Rouge! is essentially a huge, giddy pantomime, which isn't remotely weighed down by any kind of self-consciousness. We have a series of clearly-drawn, archetypal characters, whose emotional developments are telegraphed to the audience, on the basis that we all know the stories so well that there's no point in pretending otherwise. We know from the start what will happen to Christian and Satine, just as we know who to cheer and boo at when we go to the theatre at Christmas. What holds our attention is how believable the characters are within these ridiculous constraints. Opera's characters will always be somewhat absurd, but if their singers sing the parts well, it doesn't matter.
Once we view Moulin Rouge! in this light, as a pantomime par excellence, we begin to see that all the accusations of the film being pretentious are misplaced. Those who would claim that the film is old hat or in denial are missing the point; it openly embraces the clichés of musicals, and doesn't so much reinvent them or subvert them, as take them past the point of total absurdity until they start making sense all over again. The film may not be radically new in its central story, but it is new in how vividly it chooses to present it. As far as its narrative ambitions go, it is, to coin an oxymoron, bombastically humble.
The love story of Moulin Rouge! bears close resemblance to The Red Shoes. Both stories are seen from the viewpoint of a young, impressionable artist looking to make his way in the world - in Michael Powell's case the composer, in Luhrmann's case the writer. Both fall deeply in love with a talented and conflicted young woman, who has ambitions of escaping her current world. Both become part of a love triangle involving a dark, brooding figure with great power; while Richard Roxburgh isn't as purely intimidating as Anton Walbrook, he fits the bill very nicely. And both stories end in a blend of success, fate and tragedy, with the woman's fate sealing that of the two men: the innocent heart is destroyed, and the guilty heart is further darkened.
But rather than simply feeling like a transliteration of Powell's film, Moulin Rouge! gains an identity of its own through the panache of its performers. Ewan McGregor gives one of his finest performances as Christian: he sings superbly and plays the naïve fool with complete self-belief. Considering how unbelievably charismatic he is here, it's hard to believe that he went straight from this to filming Attack of the Clones (and on the very same sound stage).
Nicole Kidman, who can be brittle and irritating, compliments him beautifully as Satine. She's clearly having immense fun, reflecting the glamour of Golden Age Hollywood while managing to be both playful and insecure. Richard Roxburgh is fantastically entertaining as the Duke, with his every twitch and stifled scream sending you shrieking in laughter. Best of all, however, is Jim Broadbent, whose Harold Ziddler is quite stupendous. He has the hardest part, since his character has one foot in the madness of the Moulin Rouge and the other on the firm ground of the Duke. He balances the two roles brilliantly, and seeing him as the Maharaja is simply to die for. 
Moulin Rouge! is a masterpiece of the sublime and the ridiculous. Luhrmann's marriage of lavish visuals and operatic storytelling is immensely striking, pulling you in a world that is so totally absurd that it makes total sense. It is simultaneously the guiltiest of guilty pleasures and the most genuine fun you've had in your entire life. It is the greatest musical of the noughties, and a triumph of epic proportions.


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