(I’m beginning to realize how few non-post-modern things are on my list. Wow, never noticed that before.)
Okay, well I realize that this movie tends to polarize viewers—most either love it or hate it with a fiery passion with not many feeling indifferent—and it tends to get compared to Titanic a fair amount, so this might get interesting. I myself fall into the ‘love it’ category and have never seen Titanic, so obviously this is going to be very biased. Wait, I never saw Titanic but I love a big, sappy musical that oozes romanticism in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century setting with doomed lovers? How can that be? Well I’ll tell you.
Firstly, I am a fan of director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). I don’t tend to get hugely emotionally invested in a lot of movies, especially ones that revolve so heavily around romance and melodrama, but Luhrmann has this uncanny ability to suck me in, no holds barred, and make me invest every atom of my being into what he’s doing onscreen. Maybe because he not only doesn’t pretend that he’s doing anything but blatantly manipulating his viewers, nor that he’s making anything but melodrama—in fact he makes it hyper-dramatic to an almost surreal extent. You’re not under any delusions whatsoever that what you’re watching is real, nor are you supposed to. That was the point of his self-proclaimed “Red Curtain Trilogy”, to express heightened emotions through methods that constantly keep the audience aware that they are watching a film: dance, Shakespearian dialogue, and singing. Of course they’re overwrought visual extravaganzas, that’s the point of them. I go right along for the ride, delighted to get out of my head for a bit and experience something more visceral.
So naturally, I love the spectacle, too. Catherine Martin’s amazing costume designs really shine in this film, since there’s very little restraint she has to exercise in terms of historical accuracy. This is a fantasy world this is taking place in, after all, the Moulin Rouge that existed in the mind of everyone who never saw it firsthand. Every sort of excess is available to those with the money to afford it, and it’s a combination of bordello, dance hall, Vegas show, and Hollywood fantasy all rolled into one big surreal jelly roll and topped off with a dollop of Indian orientalism and some sparklers for good measure. It was largely touted as being the first American Bollywood picture at the time, not only for its opulent Indian-themed play-within-a-film climax, but because it ran the gamut of emotion from screwball comedy to operatic tragedy and just about everything in between. I’d never seen anything quite like it at the time, since Indian cinema was still pretty foreign to me, and I was dazzled by the spectacle and engaged emotionally with the screen in a way I rarely am with most films. It’s one of very few films where I exited the theater wanting to turn around and immediately buy another ticket to watch it again, and one of very few films I’ve attended where a portion of the audience left before it was over.
I think some people didn’t like the directing style, citing it as too ‘manic’. Other people don’t like that they used pre-existing songs for the musical, feeling that it was either lazy or disrespectful to the original artists. I thought it was a very smart move from both a problem-solving angle as well as a filmmaking angle: Christian (Ewan McGregor) is supposed to be a brilliant poet the likes of which no one has seen before, but unless the filmmakers happened to know such a brilliant poet (one that would not alienate audiences and who would make the other characters’ reactions of awe and amazement understandable to a modern audience), the songs were going to be very difficult if not impossible to get right. The solution to use pre-existing modern songs conveys the idea that Christian is brilliant and ahead of his time, and also elicits an immediate emotional response from the audience because most people are already familiar with the song in question. Since the songs in a musical are designed to progress the audience from one emotional plateau to another, this is a particularly innovative and, to me effective, idea.
Another reason I love this movie is its multi-layered subtext. Luhrmann loves referencing old stories, like with Strictly Ballroom drawing from both David and Goliath and the ugly duckling, and Romeo + Juliet referencing… okay, Romeo and Juliet. The stories referenced for Moulin Rouge! are the opera La Boheme and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I am an absolute sucker for Greek mythology, particularly the ones involving journeys to the Underworld, and Orpheus and Eurydice has one of the most classic representations of the tragic ending, with it stemming from the protagonists’ own actions and good intentions. Because the bulk of the movie is actually the memories of Christian and the present shots of him writing the account are dull and bereft of the vibrancy, color, and fantasy of his tale, it could be seen as his life in reality or the present which he is slowly coming to accept. I believe there is a note of his coming to terms with the past at the end, which is more of a positive note than both the Orpheus myth and the La Boheme opera are prone to give because it does give glimpses of the surviving hero’s coming to terms with events and forces beyond his control. The romantic ideal of love overcoming all obstacles that was repeated throughout the film was unrealistic—the audience knows his lover is dying, and even if the other conflicts resolve in their favor, there is nothing anyone can do to heal her—and his acceptance of this is the final pin in his journey through the Underworld into adulthood.
However much I love the more sensible underlying message, Moulin Rouge! is, at its heart, a celebration of art and passion and the problems that come with both. The artists of this world are colorful and creative, but poor and unable to finance the proper presentation of their vision, so they must turn to the uncreative Duke and convince him to invest in their vision. This ultimately gives him control over the content of their production and if he doesn’t approve of an aspect, they must either change it or manipulate him into being content with their ideas. (I have a very hard time believing that this is in no way analogous to trying to make a big studio film in Hollywood, by the way.) But of course the Bohemian poets defy the orders of the Duke and perform their original ending in a huge emotional climax, complete with pyrotechnic explosions, and are met with thunderous applause from their audience in response. Because artistic vision is what’s most important in artistic endeavors, and artists being censored by their financial backers is ridiculous to me. I believe in free speech and free expression, and ultimately, that’s what this movie is, both in-text and in its being, and I applaud Luhrmann for making films that stick to his vision, regardless of audience or critical response.
(And no, I haven’t seen Australia yet, but I will get to it.)