Moulin Rouge

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MOULIN ROUGE

8/10

aka Moulin Rouge!
Australia/US 2001
director : Baz Luhrmann
script : Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
producers include : Luhrmann
cinematography : Donald M McAlpine
editing : Jill Bilcock
music : Craig Armstrong
lead actors : Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh
126 minutes

“I don’t give a damn about your ridiculous DOGMA!” splutters a character midway through the riot of excess that is Moulin Rouge, and presumably Baz Luhrmann feels exactly the same way. It’s as if he’s seen the rise of dogme-inspired, stripped-down, back-to-basics shaky-cam chamber pieces, and run screaming as far and fast as he can in the opposite direction. Diving headlong into an ocean of kitsch-camp aritificiality, he dares audiences to follow suit.

Chances are you’ll enjoy the ride – if, that is, you can endure the truly woeful first ten minutes. In fact, it’s hard to remember any film this good which starts off on such a spectacularly duff note: in chaotic fashion, we’re introduced to idealistic young poet Christian (McGregor) as he recalls his doomed romance with Satine (Kidman), the courtesan star of the 1899 Moulin Rouge. In a desperate attempt to convey the heady bohemianism of fin-de-siecle Paris, Luhrmann indulges in a frenzy of machine-gun cutting and zany visual tricks, his actors mugging and hamming away as if their lives depended on it. But then Christian’s flashback reaches his first visit to the Moulin itself- and suddenly everything clicks, gloriously, into place.

Luhrmann’s gimmick is to fill his picture with anachronistic, ‘modern’ pop songs – it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it’s done with such brazen audacity it somehow all works, as the Moulin dancers and clients belt out the ‘Here we are now, entertain us!’ line from Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and their euphoria leaps straight off the screen. The film isn’t without dull spots, but these are few and fleeting, and for the most part Moulin Rouge surges along on a truly infectious jag of crazy, inventive wit. The attention to detail in costumes and sets is staggering – but underneath it all, this is really a pretty ramshackle kind of enterprise, and though he’s made a fine, entertaining film, I’m not even sure if Luhrmann is really a director at all.

As with his earlier Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, his skills seem to be more a matter of choreography and sheer brass neck than any particular use of celluloid as a medium in itself. He happens to use film, but these spectaculars might as well take place on stage – or, even better, on ice. Like the Moulin itself, his movie wallows in sham and bluster, dazzling the eye and ear and revelling in absurdity. Welcome to a world without blues, reds and greens: feast on cobalts! rubies!!!! sapphires!!!!!!!! Set piece follows set piece, and it works just fine – it would take a very hard critical heart to be able to sit through Jim Broadbent’s showstopping ‘Like a Virgin’ without cracking a wide smile.

The story itself is, of course, pretty non-existent – Satine dithers between love, represented by Christian, and duty, personified by the dastardly foppish Duke (Roxburgh) to whom she’s been promised by Moulin MC Zidler (Broadbent) – and the picture does run out of steam a little in the protracted closing stages, by which time we’ve become a little too familiar with Luhrmann’s impressive but decidedly limited box of tricks. He’s much too heavy-handed to achieve a genuine sense of magic – the kind of thing David Lynch pulled off so effortlessly in The Elephant Man. While the sequence showing Merrick’s visit to the theatre consists of little more than some blurry images of costumed figures cavorting on stage, it breaks your heart in less than two minutes. Moulin Rouge runs more than two hours and never once reaches such a peak – but it fully succeeds on its own terms, making most of this year’s other new releases look very thin soup indeed.

  

rewrite : September 16th, 2001
(seen at Showcase Nottingham, 7-Jun-01; Aug-24-01, Warner Village Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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