Several years ago, Roger Ebert praised the stylistic precocity of Joel and Ethan Coen’s first feature, Blood Simple. He expressed admiration for the pure showmanship of auteurs unafraid to let it all hang out, willing to crash if that’s where their vision landed them. Ebert described Blood Simple as a film created “as though they might never get a chance to make another one.”
Baz Luhrmann doesn’t just direct Moulin Rouge as though he might never get a chance to make another film. He directs as though no one might ever get a chance to make another film. In fact, he directs as though no one might ever get a chance to make another piece of art of any kind—as though every genre, medium and conceit were approaching its expiration date, and had to be used before it was thrown into the trash. Moulin Rouge tosses 1950s Hollywood musicals, vaudeville, modern digital technology, Top 40 rock and grand opera into a blender, whips it into a foaming pop culture cocktail and serves it to you through a water canon. “You may loathe this film,” Luhrmann practically dares his audience through the post-MTV razzle-dazzle and optical trickery, “but you will not ignore it.”
Modern-day Hollywood operates within such tightly drawn parameters of tolerable “product”—the general principle being if a movie doesn’t look like a hundred other movies, how are we going to sell it to you, the idiotic viewing public?—that something as gleefully audacious as Moulin Rouge makes a film lover want to do cartwheels at its mere improbable existence. It’s only when the cartwheels are finished that you have to confront the reality of its uneven execution. You see, Moulin Rouge is a musical told through disco, glam, grunge, show tune and AOR chestnuts. And it only transcends its gimmick when Luhrmann eases off the throttle long enough for us to stop looking at it as some Rolling Stone trivia contest.
Its story is a simple tale of star-crossed lovers, following a naïve aspiring writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) and his romance with Moulin Rouge showgirl/courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) in 1899 Paris. Intrigue swirls around Moulin Rouge impresario Harold Zidler’s (Jim Broadbent) attempts to turn the raucous dance hall into a legitimate theater by courting the wealthy (ergo nasty) Duke (Richard Roxburgh). The Duke desires Satine’s favors as compensation for his largesse. Will he come between the two young lovers, or will they be forever united by the emotional power of Billboard’s Hot 100?
The “found songs” musical isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. It has been employed for films both sublime (Singin’ in the Rain, which consisted largely of tunes from earlier MGM musicals) and godawful (the 1978 monstrosity that was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). In Moulin Rouge, however, Luhrmann looks to take the concept to another level. He constructs his soundtrack of instantly-recognizable hits like “Material Girl,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Rhythm of the Night” as a nod to our collective experience of pop music as the underscore of our lives. Even in an anachronistic setting, the familiar songs act like psychic triggers. They blow up Moulin Rouge’s simple romance to larger-than-life-size, echoing the way kids of every generation turn their favorite tunes into a personalized opera beneath their headphones.
Whenever Luhrmann lets individual songs soar, the effect is intoxicating. The audience giggles as McGregor starts wooing Kidman with the opening lines of Elton John’s “Your Song,” but by the time his soaring voice merges with a cloud-dance beneath a smiling Mèliés moon, the blissed-out musical shorthand has created a convincing love affair. Ditto the titter-inducing first lines of “Like a Virgin,” intoned by a desperate Zidler to convince the increasingly jealous Duke of Satine’s affections. For 10 seconds, it’s ridiculous. For five minutes, with the rotund Zidler essentially attempting a surrogate seduction accompanied by a prancing chorus of servants, it’s brilliant.
The frustrating thing about Moulin Rouge is that there are too many of those 10-second bursts, nowhere more evidently than in the “Elephant Love” medley. As Christian attempts to convince Satine that their romance has a chance, he launches into a rapid-fire barrage of numbers from the Beatles, KISS, Phil Collins and U2, among others. Each successive reference nudges viewers into a chuckle and a nod, but there’s never an opportunity for the music to transport you before the next nudge. Luhrmann too often appears so consumed with his next bit of business—whether lyrical or visual—that he forgets to worry about making sure the last one actually worked.
But then again, that’s just the Baz Luhrmann approach to filmmaking. If you’ve seen his 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, you know he keeps that stylistic/editing channel-flipper clicking away at a rate that would shame Oliver Stone. The opening half-hour of Moulin Rouge alternates between eye-popping splendor and near incomprehensibility, capturing both the gaudy excesses of its setting and the even gaudier excesses of Lurhmann’s self-indulgence. It’s not about performance, though McGregor, Kidman and particularly Roxburgh strike perfect melodramatic notes. It’s not about where the story is heading, since the framing sequence gives the conclusion away. It’s about Luhrmann taking two hours of screen time and packing it with 100 years worth of tricks, tropes and tunes. When it’s not exhausting, it’s exhilarating. And vice-versa.
There’s a fitting irony to the fact that Moulin Rouge’s show-within-the-show is titled “Spectacular Spectacular.” Baz Luhrmann is the sort of filmmaker for whom one spectacular simply isn’t spectacular enough. Maybe he’d be willing to tone it down a bit next time, if someone would only promise him he will, indeed, get a chance to make another one.
Moulin Rouge (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.