1899, France. Christian, a young English writer, has come to Paris in order to follow the Bohemian revolution taking hold of the city’s drug and prostitute infested underworld of Montmartre. The thrill of the change nowhere is more alive than at the Moulin Rouge, a night club where the rich and poor alike come to be entertained by the vibrant, impudent dancers, singers and clowns. Soon enough Christian meets a group of writers/composers lead by Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocrat, a painter and a dwarf. They invite him to work on their newest project – a musical about the importance and the strength of love. Love, beauty, freedom and truth…pass that joint, brother ;).
Things take a wicked turn for Christian when he himself falls in love with nobody else but the star courtesan of the Moulin Rouge, Satine. He just wanted to talk her into supporting the project of his new friends and somehow ended up loving her tremendously. However, the competition is fierce. Satine’s affections and charms are also coveted by one of the richest club’s patron, the Duke of Worcester. Zidler, the owner of Moulin Rouge, makes it clear that either Satine complies and becomes Duke’s exclusive mistress or she can forget about a big fat career as a real actress or any career at all. Not to mention the fact that her beloved Christian’s life might be endangered as well. A dangerous love triangle ensues : Satine and Christian attempt to stay together as clandestine lovers, outsmarting Zidler, the Duke, and all the world around them. Still a force that not even love can conquer is slowly taking its toll on Satine, a not especially healthy girl to begin with…
Call me a snobbish cow but when I go abroad as a tourist there are some places which I would never miss, not for the whole tea in China, and there are some places I avoid like the plague. The former include, but are not limited to, museums of natural history, material history, any kind of history and, of course, museums of art. The latter are different tourist traps, promising empty entertainment for a lot of money and little more.
That’s why I would never visit Moulin Rouge in Paris – in my humble opinion it is an overpriced and overrated establishment of a very dubious reputation whose main attraction, as far as I know, consists of presenting different exotic dancers, topless dancers and Can-Can dancers while they serve you bad champagne and ruin your bank account. Can-Can is not a dance, by the way. In my opinion it is a physically demanding and vulgar exhibition of most private female assets in quick 2/4 time which main features are the lifting and manipulation of the skirts,high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements. It has been danced most often by middle-ranking courtesans and only semiprofessional entertainers, its aim being just to titillate. Monsieur Jacques Offenbach didn’t exactly do the word a favour composing its most popular version. That’s why when I heard about Moulin Rouge, the romantic drama musical, released in 2001 and universally praised, I shrugged. And shrugged. And shrugged some more. Then, after more than decade of shrugging I decided to watch it because you can’t ignore such a movie forever.
I admit it, I was grudgingly impressed. Luhrmann leaves convention far behind and dips instead into his own inspired and highly imaginative formula to tell his story. The cinematography (by Donald McAlpine) and art direction (by Ann-Marie Beauchamp and Ian Gracie) are brilliant, as well as the production design and the original sets. One of the many inspired touches Luhrmann employs here is the use of different film speeds throughout which, when combined with the superlative, quick-cut editing, makes it all transporting and surreal, like an adult fairy tale told by a drunken bard smoking weed. Forget the historical Paris of fin de siècle, though, forget the real artists and bohemians, living there. In fact I felt as if I was watching a Disney movie (not a compliment) written by Shakespeare (a compliment), directed by Fellini (a compliment) and co-produced by Spielberg, Kidman and Tom Cruise (not a compliment again). In fact the storyline of Moulin Rouge can be traced back to Alexandre Dumas, fils‘ The Lady of the Camellias, although Luhrmann, as an opera director, was probably more directly influenced by Verdi’s adaptation, La Traviata. Well, what works in an opera doesn’t necessarily works in a movie, especially plot-wise. Anyway this is a story about fictional artists who congregated in fictional Paris in completely spurious 1900, living a fictional bohemian lifestyle and giving the world the fruits of their fictional labor and art for which they would gladly bleed and die (but only after releasing a green fairy from a big, green bottle of absinthe ;p ). Toulouse-Lautrec and his ‘seven dwarves’ (well, there were less of them so treat that number, like their dwarfish sizes, just as a metaphor) never went outside their two-dimensional roles of flower-children or rather flower-clowns and it was a pity.
Mostly this is a story about insta-love. It is also my main carping. Your Prince Charming is called Christian; he is a gifted but penniless writer who still, miraculously, had enough money to travel to Paris and live there unproductively for some time (how? why?); your Cinderella is a lovely prostitute with an acting talent and a good voice named Satine. These two, for a moment, came together and tasted the nectar of the gods served on a back of an artificial elephant straight from your cheesiest Bollywood movie set. They fell in love during less than one song, breaking, I suppose, the unofficial land speed limit of a movie insta-love. Woo-hoo!
So why did I enjoy it at all and watch it to the very end? According to me the secret formula of this movie’s success seems to be as follows: take some classic songs of David Bowie, Nirvana, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, The Beatles, Elton John, U2, Madonna, Queen, Sting and T-Rex (not a full list, mind you), spice them with a dash of Indian curry (Chamma Chamma, baby!) , immerse them in a dizzying, whirling burst of lights, colors, drama and comedy, let them marinate a bit and then serve them very hot in a bohemian sauce with some Argentinean wine. Bon appétit!
In other words while I was bored by the main plot, I more than liked all the music, choreography and clever twists on some well-known classics. My favourites? The ‘Roxanne’ tango (to the old song of Sting/The Police), ‘Show Must Go On’ (one of the best songs of Freddie Mercury and the Queen) performed by seamstresses and Zilder and Children of the Revolution (originally by T-Rex) with a sea of black tailcoats and black hats. The actors weren’t that bad but I had a feeling neither Evan McGregor (Christian), nor Nicole Kidman (Satine) went to great lengths to make their performances truly memorable. Perhaps they thought that their singing and the whole ‘razzle-dazzle’ was enough (and I am not surprised no other director has offered them another musical role so far).
What’s more when my eyes got accustomed to all that sparkles and fireworks and my ears – to the sound of music, I noticed many strange mistakes, difficult to explain. I admit it will be a section for those movie nerds who love spotting those small incongruities but indulge me for a minute or two, I promise to quote just a few of them.
When Toulouse enters Christian’s room at the beginning of the film the door knob is about shoulder height for him. When Christian yells at Toulouse later to go away as he exits the room the door handle is about hip level. Hmm…so is he or isn’t he a dwarf?
After Zidler tells Satine that she is dying, he is seen walking up a stairway past some sewing women. In an overview of the stairs, a stage light to the left has about a dozen or so frosted light bulbs in it. Frosted, tungsten light bulbs were not invented until the mid-to-late 1920s. Any electric light in 1900 would have had clear, carbon-filament bulbs. And no, those are not glass shades over the bulbs.
When Nini is doing the dance to ‘Roxanne’, you can see a very visible cameraman when one of the male dancers lifts her over his head. If played in slow motion, you can see that the spotlight even focuses on the cameraman for a split second. An accidental extra?
When Satine is singing “One day I’ll fly away”, Christian climbs up the elephant to meet her and he leans on a column with a red ball. The ball keeps moving between shots, even though Christian keeps still in the same position, watching Satine. Sometimes the ball is down, sometimes up, sometimes close to him. A magic trick?
Finally nobody, literally nobody, is afraid that blood-coughing, feverish, rail thin Satine might infect them with TB as she kisses her way to the finale grande…
‘Moulin Rouge’ is an explosion of sights and sounds, a film laced with humor and visual largess, a fairy tale for adults told in a very entertaining way. It also holds a trivial, childishly stupid romance at its heart. I agree, it was thoroughly enjoyable but not without flaws. Still if you like Can-Can, amusing new versions of classic pop hits, fin de siècle Paris and tear-jerking love affairs you will be more or less fine.