Saturday, May 14, 2011

Moulin Rouge!: 10 Years Later

On May 9, 2001, Baz Luhrmann debuted Moulin Rouge! as the opening of the Cannes Film Festival.  The premiere, I'm sure a prim and opulent affair on the Croisette, was critically divided, some embracing the Spectacular! Spectacular! of it all, others dismissing it as mere drivel, which I suppose is the reputation it still has.  I remember the first time I saw Moulin Rouge!; it was a mid-June afternoon, and after such fanfare, such heartfelt passion, and awful derision, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The musical genre in film was long dormant, for decades in fact, and though Lars von Trier had given some art house revitalization a year before with Bjork tragedy Dancer in the Dark, this was a ballsy premise, and if it failed, would set back the Hollywood musical even further.  On first viewing I wasn't truly sure what I had seen, was it too much, not enough, something brilliant, or an utter fiasco...I was overwhelmed and my sixteen year old self, perhaps due to the fact that this was my Luhrmann de-virginization (it was only afterward that I sought out Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet); I knew I had seen something, I just wasn't sure what exactly.  And so I ruminated.  And slowly after time, the silly pop romance between Satine (Nicole Kidman), the nightclub courtesan and Christian (Ewan McGregor), the spirited, but impoverished writer struck me as something utterly cosmic.  And it wasn't until I started watching it religiously on DVD that I soon realized that this was a once in lifetime film that needn't be analyzed, but worshiped, for it embodies everything that is bold and beautiful and magical about the cinema.

From the start, the grand 20th Century Fox logo plays with classical accompaniment, where a red curtain opens to a magical land-- 1899 Paris, from a purely mad Aussie perspective segueing into "Nature Boy," and a panoramic view of a bohemian paradise.  Period setting with pop songs...brilliant and mad.  We meet our characters, and they are a cinematic staple, and that's the's the grand statement of pop music that makes human emotion click, and Moulin Rouge! is not about plot or convention, it's about feeling...we need to feel everything that is going on.  From the beginning, a massive undertaking to watch, or endure, or to have filmed, I'm sure, Moulin Rouge! requires a lot of patience.  The ADD first third, where everything is set it motion in purposely cartoon, Looney Tones fashion, it likely loses more viewers in the first twenty minutes than most films do in the ninety.  But it's on repeated viewings that the proceedings make sense, and bother's all build up to the great tragic-comic show, the Spectacular! Spectacular!  The overbearing meta, pop music, postmodernism settles in, at least for me, about the time Christian starts singing the Elton John song "Your Song," suddenly the film slows down and takes rockets from the romantic beat of the a pop song telling you everything you every needed to know.  Perhaps it's McGregor's gentle crooning, or Kidman's worshipful glance, but there's a genuine pulse that starts to run it's way through your veins.  It's not just the opulent production values, or the nifty special effects, but a heartfelt beat that rockets the scene.  Suddenly the magic of love can lift one up to dance in the sky and the clouds will lift, being it's set it Paris, the Eiffel Tower would be an ideal setting for a moonlight dance in the clouds.  The film makes its ultimate musical gesture in the "Elephant Love Medley," where are young lovers realize their fates, while name-checking nearly a dozen love songs of the last fifty years, and the banality of pop songs makes its heartiest impression-- it would so corny, if it weren't so beautiful.  The later half of Moulin Rouge! is nearly all tragedy, yet with its emotion worn so warmly on its sleeves, it's hard to resist, and I nearly always succumb to the misty mush, for this is a movie that is felt, not contemplative.
Despite the mixed reaction, at years end, Moulin Rouge! received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and Nicole Kidman for Best Actress; it won two awards-- costume design and art direction (both of which were shared by Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin.)  And while the awards momentum for such a nutty film is accomplishment in itself, for a film so widely acknowledged by the Academy, two were unfairly snubbed.  The first was for leading actor Ewan McGregor, who so charmingly and with such unbridled abandon played our dashing hero with utmost sincerity and vulnerability; his work is easily, I'd say, the best of his career, and one of the grandest emotional performances that any male has brought to the screen in a some time.  Kidman's work was acknowledged, and while wonderful-- I'd argue it's one the strongest pure movie star roles since the days of Marilyn; she has to be sex pot, muse, lover, and martyr nearly all at once-- McGregor's work is probably the more challenging.  The other unfair snub was for the man who created this wondrous descent into madness-- director Baz Luhrmann, without which the whole thing would never have been.  Nearly on a technical side alone (the opening shot had, I believe, the largest scale of visual effects ever for a sequence at that time) he was due, yet for the balance of comedy and tragedy, the influences that ranged from Nirvana to MTV to Shakespeare to classic French farce to La Boheme and Hollywood, it still strikes a nerve in me.

Just as it strikes a nerve that a year later, when Rob Marshall's Chicago opened to greater acclaim and bigger box office, as well as the Best Picture Oscar received much of the credit for reviving the musical genre.  That would be false.  Especially since only two months after Moulin Rouge! polarized mainstream audiences, John Cameron Mitchell debuted the even more transgressive and indie alternative with his Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And yet now we stand at a stalemate as to where the genre (one of the oldest cinematic staples since the invention of sound) stands.  In the decade since, many have come-- The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Rent (2005), The Producers (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007)-- and promptly left the cinematic consensus.  Dreamgirls (2006) and Hairspray (2007) were the two that were the most commercially and critically applauded, but since there's been very little in terms of updating and rejuvenating the genre.  We need another visionary like Luhrmann to dust off the cobwebs of old fashioned-ness and respectability and again let us savior the grandeur and audacity and emotion of the sound of music.

Until then, we can harken back to the tenth anniversary of one of the greatest films ever made.  It hasn't aged a bit.

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