I will not let this be the film that defeats me.
Since starting my Netflix account, there are only two films that I can recall sending back before I finished watching them. One was the boring, insufferable Garden State. This is the other one. I watched approximately an hour, but gave up when a fat sweaty man started singing “Like A Virgin.” But unlike a film that only exists to trigger an emotional response but ultimately has no substance (like, say, Garden State) Moulin Rouge! didn’t really leave my mind. The story was kinetic, the performances fine, and some of the musical numbers are the best ever put to film (specifically, “The Pitch.”) So why, oh why did I send it back to begin with?
So, here we go. Round two.
The story takes place in turn of the century Paris. An author named Christian ( Ewan McGergor) seeks a Bohemian lifestyle and moves there to find inspiration. He meets some real people, including Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo on his knees) and fictional people like Harold Zidler (no kidding…Jim Broadbent), who runs the Moulin Rouge night club. While at this club, he meets Satine (Nicole Kidman) a new performer who is also seeking a better life. Minor spoiler alert: this is because she is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Anyway, Christian tries to show her the play that he and Lautrec are working on. Through a miscommunication via Zidler, Satine believes Christian to be the wealthy Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) and tries to seduce him to win favor. When the real Duke shows up, the two people, on the spot, tell of this exciting new production and ask the Duke to invest. He does so, but only on the condition Satine stay with him. While Christian and Satine continue working on this epic (which involves an Indian courtesan trying to escape an evil marahajah for a sitar player….yea, the metaphor is about a subtle as an elephant on top of the Eiffel Tower would be) he finds he loves her and tries to win her over. The jealous Duke will have none of this and plots ways to eliminate the competition.
Well, now I have seen in and I know exactly what the problems was. I am of two completely different minds about it. I can never ever call this a bad film. The film captures the sort of nostalgia that actually feels like nostalgia – a hopelessly romantic view of the past and a reconstruction of characters that likely never existed in the way they are portrayed here. The film evokes the Paris of paintings (small wonder no part of it was filmed on location). As a spectacle, this cannot be topped. It is easy to be wowed by the film and at least sit back and admire its technical mastery.
This may be, if it was presented as a rock concert, among the best spectacles ever created. But it is not; it is presented as a film. And here its troubles begin.
First off, Baz Luhrmann needs to learn what subtlety is. He still feels that he needs to hold the audiences’ hands to guide us through the film. Every time that he includes something interesting in the back round or a fleeting piece of dialogue that becomes important later, Luhrmann pretty much stops the film and sets up giant neon arrows pointing to it. This is NOT masterful story telling (the plot recap I wrote may very well be the longest I ever have, and I did not nearly cover all I wanted to) because Luhrmann views every tiny detail as important, even if it leads absolutely no where. The word “love” gets repeated as though Luhrmann thinks we will forget what the theme of the film is without Luhrmann to constantly tell us and consistently states that “love” is the only thing in the film that matters, without really defining what it is and what the characters hope to get out of it.It gets to the point where I almost found myself thinking the Duke (when discussing why the courtesan in the play does not choose the man who could give her money) had somewhat of a point. But then, we are getting off message.
I could discuss the other flaws the film has; how the songs are expertly performed but often don’t really match what is going on (the modern songs mostly do work, but I am sorry, in declaring everlasting love the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Heroes” are the exact opposite of what you need), how the actors exert an enormous amount of energy playing roles that are not well defined (I kept expecting the Duke to kidnap Satine and tie her to the railroad tracks). However, it all comes back to Baz Luhrmann’s absolute lack of knowledge to differentiate between what is important on screen and what is not. It was filmed, dammit, so you are going to see it.
Alright then; let’s use overwrought metaphors. If subtlety is a woman, than Baz Luhrmann has treated her in the same way that, say, Jack the Ripper treated Mary Kelly.
Look, I do not expect musicals to be subtle. It is quite damaging when they try to be. Dancer in the Dark is pretty much the opposite of this film, and I would say Dancer is far worse. But that does not really excuse the problems that the film has. This was the endlessly frustrating part to me; I cannot fault the film nor can I say that it should not be seen, but then I cannot really praise it either. Maybe what Luhrmann really needs is to direct Broadway musicals – on stage. Then, and only then, will his madcap vision finally be realized.
Oh, also, the soundtrack is one of the best ever. That I have no problem praising.