Long-winded thoughts on Moulin Rouge

moulinRougeWell, I just finished partaking in the experience that is Moulin Rouge! Wow. What a stumbling spectacle of a movie.

I’ve realized from watching this film that I’m not a Baz Luhrmann fan. I find his style comes off like pop art statements filtered through the vocabulary of Hollywood action films; all swagger and kinetics and a magician’s sense of distraction, and little real substance.

Short Attention Span

Luhrmann seems to have this strange inability to focus his camera on anything without either distorting it somehow (filters, wide angle lenses, etc.), or cutting away so quickly you’re not really sure what you saw in the first place. Moulin Rouge (and his earlier film, Romeo + Juliet) are filled with these rapid fire distortions.

You can almost physically feel him attempting to grab you by the collar and shake you into having an experience with his films. I don’t like it when someone is obviously trying very hard to move me. It feels manipulative and fake.

You Look Good to Me

One thing about this movie that does bowl you over is its visual splendor. The sets and costumes (and more than a handful of shots) are opulent and beautiful. You can tell art director Ann-Marie Beauchamp poured her heart into every nook and cranny of this film. A fastidious, loving attention to detail is everpresent. This is Paris, but its Paris as imagined by a Las Vegas casino decorator gone wild, and with an endless budget.

An Embarrassment of (Musical) Glitches

ewanMcgregor.jpgI love musicals, and I’m nutty for the old musicals from the golden age of MGM studios, so the sight of Ewan McGregor or Nicole Kidman belting out a saucy number didn’t freak me out too much. It’s more the strange juxtaposition that Luhrmann forces here between the ribald anachronisms of the can-can and modern music. I knew from the second the movie opened with the title “Paris: 1900” and David Bowie warbled the words to “Nature Boy” (written in the 60’s by Eden Abnez) that period accuracy was not the idea here.

The attempts to toss in music that a younger generation could recognize here, however, proves more surreal than successful. The sight of row upon row of top hat-sporting men singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, or Ewan McGregor bravely warbling Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You proved too silly and incredulous for me. A duet by the leads about halfway through the film (Come What May) is the one exception - it’s quite pretty and well-performed - but I found the music more jarring and distracting than good.

Maybe that’s just my internal Grandma Simpson screeching, however: “They don’t make musicals like they used toooooo!”

Still, if I hear that damn Lady Marmalade again, it’ll be too soon. There’s a reason why the media has dubbed Christina Aguliera, Mya, Pink, and Lil’ Kim the “Four Whores of the Apocalypse”. <shudder>

Note to Director: Pacing is your friend

My biggest problem with this movie is the pacing. The movie, as Renée astutely pointed out while we were watching it, is one big rollicking climax from top to bottom. I half expected Luhrmann, having already hit the ceiling with his numerous climactic song and dance numbers, ending the film with the explosion of the Moulin Rouge in a gigantic spray of glitter and feather boas.

One thing is for sure: I’ve never seen a movie like this before. It’s bold, very daring, and features some of the bravest performances by actors in recent years. I mean, can you believe the sight of Jim Broadbent singing Like a Virgin? The visual audacity of this film is truly stunning. At the same time, the plot is gossamer-thin, the characters mere cardboard cutouts, and the music more often than not cringe-worthy, or unintentionally hilarious.

Finally: A Recommendation

Moulin Rouge! is worth a watch just for the costumes and sets alone, but if you want to see a really good modern musical, rent Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy. It has everything: amazing sets, great songs, hilarious dialogue, good acting, and a nicely paced plot.

P.S. Do yourself a favour and check out the Moulin Rouge! Web site - it’s really terrific.

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