For a long time, Moulin Rouge! has held a very special place in my heart. It’s one of those films that, because you’re so familiar with it, it becomes a thing of comfort – it’s the one single film I will re-watch more than almost any other (barring of course the series films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.)
Now I’m talking about the 2001 film directed by Baz Luhrmann, who has got to be one of the most polarizing directors in film history. Either you love him or you hate him. And obviously, I love him! So if you hate Luhrmann, you probably will not agree with the rest of this post, because I’m about to sing his praises. And the praises of the entire team that contributed to this complete work of art; they deserve a massive amount of recognition.
After a ridiculous and hilarious intro featuring an enthusiastic conductor silhouetted against a red velvet curtain, we are plunged into a bleak and dark Parisian world of despair. A depressed and despondent writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) is the narrator, and he both sets up the plot and gives away the ending in a matter of minutes. Normally, this would be somewhat irritating, but the story that follows is so totally contrasting in style that it works in a complimentary way.
Christian has come to Paris in 1899 (the “summer of love”) and moves into the flat directly under Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his band of bohemian misfits. When Toulouse’s production-in-progress literally crashes through Christian’s ceiling, he’s immediately pulled into their world of bohemian creativity, hallucinatory absinthe, and ladies of the night. He becomes the new writer for their musical after he wows everyone by singing all-too-familiar strains from The Sound of Music, and a convoluted plan is hatched to make sure he meets with the leading lady, Satine (Nicole Kidman) in private.
Now add in the fact that Satine is meant to seduce a wealthy Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to finance the musical and the renovation of the Moulin Rouge, and of course shenanigans are about to happen. Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke, and falls in love with him after he sings for her. After a near run-in with the Duke and Christian, she manages to save the day by quick thinking and a lot of luck, and the bohemian crew manages to convince the Duke to be their financial benefactor. Although, as the larger-than-life master of ceremonies Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) soon finds out, the Duke is anything but beneficial. He demands both the deeds to the Moulin Rouge and all “exclusive rights” to Satine as financial protection for his investment, which Zidler quickly signs over.
Satine and Christian decide to carry on a secret romance after they sing the famous “Elephant Love Medley.” The musical they’re creating has an absurd amount of parallel with their real love affair, like a cheeky way of rubbing it in the Duke’s face. However, they fall for each other too quickly and too deeply, leading to their carelessness and eventual discovery by Zidler and other members of the show. Luckily the Duke doesn’t know yet, but it’s only a matter of time. And to complicate matters more, Satine has a persistent cough coupled with fainting spells, and is eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. Zidler decides it’s best to hide the diagnosis from Satine, so she can focus on the show and her dream of being an actress.
The film gets darker and darker as it goes on. The secret lovers are revealed to everyone, and the disease is revealed to Satine in a crucial moment, when she has to decide to lie to Christian to both save his life and appear in the show with what’s left of hers. The frenetic energy with which the film comes crashing into the final climax stops abruptly as Christian publically refutes “his whore” on stage during the opening performance. The incredible pace much of the film has had slows to practically nothing as Satine sings the secret song to win Christian back. And of course, the pace ramps back up to a whirlwind of an ending, brought full circle by ending with the despondent narrator Christian putting the finishing touches on his story about the love of his life.
I mean, come on. No one films a party quite like Baz Luhrmann. He proves this again in The Great Gatsby, but that’s for a different post. There is so much meaning and foreshadowing layered into every single bit of this film. The emotions are really packed in too; you have every single thing on the spectrum from comedy to tragedy. Whether or not you feel these emotions as an audience member is almost irrelevant, the actors are feeling them. And that’s enough for me. I get completely sucked into this bizarre world when I watch this film, and I inevitably ride the emotional roller coaster that goes along with it.
I could go on and on about this film for a long time, so I’ll spare you and jump right into my impressions!
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- I can’t imagine what the licensing fees were for this movie. I haven’t even tried to look this up because I’m not sure I want to know the answer. They had to pay for the rights to use so many well-known musical giants; the film is absolutely packed with even really short moments of hugely popular songs. At least they re-recorded everything (or most everything) and didn’t also have to pay to use the masters, but still…the result is incredible, but the journey must have been painful!
- The songs could have easily felt gratuitous and weird, but they don’t. Again, this is my opinion, and I’m sure there are many people who disagree with me. But what I think was really smart was how the lines that were most important to the plot from so many of the songs were incorporated before and/or after the song appeared in the film as dialogue. It helps tie everything together in a really neat and satisfying way, instead of having a bunch of songs thrown in just for nostalgia or for the benefit of having an interesting soundtrack. Each song chosen has a purpose; while some of those purposes are pretty ridiculous (I’m looking at you, “Like A Virgin”), I do think they work, and they work well. As a quick aside – I think it helps a lot that the songs were incorporated with each other really well. And the fact that some were repurposed into different musical styles, it all works together to create a strong and stylistic whole.
- I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen this movie, and I still can only think of a few spots of actual underscore instead of song. And I think this is perfect; clearly the songs are meant to be the stars of the show (you know, besides the actors and the costumes and the sets and the detailing…). Craig Armstrong was the composer, and each piece of underscore that I can hear in my head away from the film is beautifully crafted, but also sounds like it’s either coming from a song or it belongs to the next one. It’s really incredible, and just helps even more to tie together this wacky concept of using all these bizarre songs for 1900 Paris. And, I think it’s worth noting, he’s also worked with Baz Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, so I think it’s safe to say that this approach to the score is exactly what Luhrmann wants.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- The attention to detail is beyond stunning. I mean, thank god the film won Academy Awards for Costume Design and Art Direction/Set Direction. You’d hardly notice it all with how fast the cuts are edited together, but every single inch of this film is carefully curated to excessive amounts. Seriously, I don’t know how they were able to pack so much stuff in, for lack of a better word. There’s just stuff everywhere, but it’s all so carefully chosen and placed (and then shown in the editing) to place you in the proper time, location, and mindset. The entire film deals with opulence and excess, and that’s exactly what these production and costume designers give you. I also want to give a special shout-out to the sound designers. There are so many little sound effects thrown in that only truly belong in cartoons, but they all make me laugh. I think they’re absolutely perfect, and I’m so happy that each one is in there!
- The editing will give you whiplash, but that’s exactly right for this film. Every single thing happens so fast! It’s insane; there are SO MANY cuts that happen for a second or less packed into this film. But instead of feeling like this is the really poor attempt of someone who can’t decide what to include in their film and can’t bring themselves to cut any footage, it works. You have to sit back and relax a little for it to work, just accept that you won’t be able to see and process every little detail those costume and set designers worked so hard on, but it works. Luhrmann and his editor Jill Bilcock are actively trying to overload you with visual information. This is the point, the point is opulent excess and they’re not only showing it in the sets and props and costumes, they’re showing it in the editing. And they know this is visually tiring, they really only use this technique during the crazy party scenes or when the action is REALLY heating up. And they do give you a few breaks from it, but just a few.
- The actors completely throw themselves into their roles. Some of the characters aren’t even characters, they’re just caricatures of archetypes. The Duke doesn’t even have a name! Most of the more prominent Moulin Rouge dancers don’t have names either. And many of the leading characters only have first names. Who they are specifically isn’t important; it’s the type of character that they’re representing that really matters. And the whole film would fall apart if the actors weren’t completely committed to their parts. Even the singing has full commitment. Obviously the actors were chosen for their acting capabilities, but I think it’s so important that they sang everything themselves. I think that in and of itself did so much to strengthen that connection to their character and to the other characters. And each person in the film had this level of dedication no matter how small their role was. The dance numbers are really a sight to behold; honestly I can’t come up with a worthy description.
Now there are a few bits of the movie that I just really love for no other reason than the fact that they’re fun. The conductor at the beginning is one of those, it makes me laugh every time, even though it’s completely over the top and ridiculous. The opera-singing moon is also just amazing. Just amazing. It’s so easy to miss, but again, the addition of it just makes those already fantastical sequences so over the top. And that, for me, represents the best part about this film. Again – I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it – but there’s something new for me to catch every time. There’s familiarity, and then there’s the surprise of finding something new. It’s the best of both worlds.
I hope you love this movie as much as I do, and I hope you’ve agreed with the things I’ve talked about. There’s not much I can do if you don’t, but I’d challenge you to watch the film again and see if your feelings have changed at all. And if you haven’t seen it at all – go watch it! Now!