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For two decadesbeginning, perhaps, with Michael Mann’s Thiefsavvy Hollywood directors have been making action movies that play like trailers. At their best, these films are visually thrilling, albeit usually at some cost to intellectual and emotional appeal. At worst, such movies soon become tiresome, purveying the same frantic tics over and over like rock videos that have mistaken themselves for operas.
Which brings us directly to Moulin Rouge, a musical that’s based on an opera (La Bohème) but also draws on breakneck action movies, rock videos, Bollywood flicks, and a style of A/V collage you can attribute to dada, hiphop, or channel surfing. Add two photogenic stars, a cornucopia of pop songs (mostly from the ’70s), and in-your-face anachronisms, and the result is a movie that pop-cult pundits can discuss for hoursbut is watchable for only about 30 of its 135 minutes.
Director Baz Luhrmann, who played similar tricks on the bard with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, announces his intentions with an overture that draws the 20th Century Fox logo into the action while splicing “The Sound of Music” with “Children of the Revolution.” But Josie and the Pussycatsstill the season’s best Hollywood musicaldid a funnier bit with the MGM logo, and any glittery rock musical featuring Ewan McGregor and a T. Rex song inevitably recalls Velvet Goldmine. In that movie, McGregor played a character largely modeled on Iggy Pop and provided his own vocals; here he sings again, but in a thin, singer-songwriterly quaver. (Call him Moulin Stooge.)
Velvet Goldmine was a mess, too, but at least its evocation of a lost golden age had some passion to it. The most impassioned scene in Moulin Rouge comes when Parisian courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman, also gamely singing) entertains impoverished British-expat poet Christian (McGregor) in her boudoir, having mistaken him for the wealthy duke who’s prepared to invest in the new show that will promote her from upscale tart to legitimate actress. Attempting to seduce him as instructed by her boss/pimp, Zidler (Jim Broadbent), Satine purrs and moans while Christian recites his versewhich turns out to be the lyric to Elton John’s 1970 hit “Your Song.” The confusion is meant to be comic, yet in its ridiculous way the sequence is more erotically charged than any of the scenes Satine and Christian share after they supposedly fall in love.
Luhrmann has said that Moulin Rouge is his version of the Orpheus legend: A bard (Christian) travels to hell (the Moulin Rouge, a giddily decadent Montmartre nightclub/ bordello) to redeem his true love (Satine). Christian is more hack than bard, though, and the Moulin Rouge is more heaven than hell. Rendered in delirious shades of red, gold, and more red, the theater is a Technicolor flashback to Hollywood’s classic musicals, an homage to the polysexual pre-AIDS bender of glam rock and disco, and an 1899 riff on the rave movement’s summer-of-love hype and millennial ambitions. Satine is supposed to be suffering, but the movie’s disposition has less to do with the tubercular, sexually degraded courtesan (who generally seems quite healthy and undefiled) than with Zidler’s gleeful reading of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”the movie’s musical-comedy highlight, by the way.
To a certain extent, Luhrmann is revisiting past successes: the garish dance-hall comedy of Strictly Ballroom, the version of La Bohème he directed in Australia in 1990and may bring to New York next yearand the tragic teen romance of Romeo + Juliet. (Neither Kidman nor McGregor can pass for a teenager, but when Zidler tries to separate the two lovers, he’s the closest thing to a disapproving daddy you’ll find in a fin de siècle Parisian burlesque club.) The stakes are higher here, however, and the director’s only response is to add more stuff: Quick, throw another song on the medley!
Trying to determine Luhrmann’s argument is more dizzying than the movie’s camera movements, quick cuts, and animated rocket’s-eye view of a black-and-white Paris. At one point, the director interjects Nirvana’s jaded command “Here we are now, entertain us”but it’s impossible to tell if he endorses the sentiment or just likes the jarring juxtaposition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lady Marmalade.” When Luhrmann intermingles “Your Song,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Silly Love Songs” with “Heroes” and “Pride (In the Name of Love),” is he saying that they’re all silly love songsor all profound expressions of their time?
If we can believe A Knight’s Tale, the hits of the ’70s are the only remaining common ground for today’s American moviegoers. The importance of “Your Song” to Moulin Rouge suggests the would-be epiphany of Almost Famous, a singalong to “Tiny Dancer”another Elton John hit in another ’70s-struck film. But how can a movie that’s in love with the decadent underworlds of art, music, dance, and prostitution also extol the Top 40 sentiments of Elton, Madonna, and Paulie? Perhaps Moulin Rouge is just too busy to be ironic or too pleased with its own linkages to worry if the connections are profound or merely glancing.
Early in the film, Luhrmann suggests that he does indeed see alt-art and pop-schlock as equivalent: Enlisted by Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) to help write songs for an avant-garde musical, Christian ends up writing “The Sound of Music.” Give Luhrmann “The Sound of Music” as a starting point, however, and he’ll come up with, well, Moulin Rouge. The director’s taste for silly love stories may give his films teen spirit, but in watching Moulin Rouge I was reminded of another mix-and-match visionary who decided to mate pop and opera: Malcolm McLaren. Having managed to make several complex, ornate films, Luhrmann is clearly less of a dilettante than McLaren. As pop-culture theorists, however, the two are at least as congruous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lady Marmalade.” CP