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In praise of love: Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

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Moulin Rouge!

***** – a masterpiece

The very basic definition of a musical is an extravagent tale that uses music to drive its story, so I’ve often found it amusing when Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 dazzler, Moulin Rouge!, complain about the film being ” too over-the-top”. Doing so is like groaning that a horror flick is “too scary” or a drama is “too moving” – Moulin Rouge!‘s extravagence is its highlight, not its flaw.

I haven’t been too much of a fan of the majority of musicals throughout film’s history, because most of them just plain bore me. Love it or hate it – there is one adjective that Moulin Rouge! can’t be used to describe it: boring. Most “traditional” musicals, from the likes of Chicago to West Side Story, lack the extravagence and imagination that Moulin Rouge! is oozing at every corner. Because most musicals are incredibly shallow in emotion and theme – they require to be a marvel of aesthetics to make up for what they lack, and Luhrmann’s film certainly is.

Detractors of the film also note the film’s shallowness, but I’ve always felt that view is a limited one over what artistic contributions film is capable of making. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a powerhouse of a biopic and narrative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be as universally noted as “the greatest film ever made” had it not been the influential and remarkable aesthetic contributions to cinema that it made. I’ve often found most landscapes to be a bore because they don’t mean anything, but I can’t help but love Van Gogh’s because of the aesthetic appeal they have for me – and like the canvas, film is a primarily visual medium – something that Moulin Rouge! has a lion’s grasp on.

Not to compare Luhrmann’s film to Kane‘s visual contributions – no film is within reach – but Moulin Rouge! isn’t a lightweight in that department, either. The controversial “quick-cut” editing style has been complained about as not allowing viewers to absorb the film’s beautiful art direction and costumes, but I’ve often found it to be more revealing of the surroundings, not less so. As opposed to the stereotypical long, wide shots which allow the viewer to acknowledge everything on screen in a distanced shot – Rouge!‘s editing allows for a series of individual intimate portraits, revealing the environment in a different way.

Not that “quick-cut” editing always works – it isn’t a new concept, and Moulin Rouge! is the only film I’ve seen that has made it work as well as it does. This isn’t only because of Luhrmann’s natural talent for beautiful imagery – but also because of the film being a musical, and its hurried pacing. Luhrmann’s fluttering editing often finds a beautiful sync with the music – cutting less when Kidman’s Satine purrs the slow “One Day I’ll Fly Away” – and more vibrantly and in step with a fantastic adaptation The Police’s “Roxanne”. With “Le Tango de Roxanne”, Luhrmann’s camera follows spectators and stomping feet beautifully on note – as a magnificant club sequence towards the film’s beginning features explosive camerawork that adds to colorful and hypnotic environment.

The hurried pacing also bodes well for the editing style because both are, well, hurried. Moulin Rouge! is an overblown tribute to love and infatuation – and in a sense is a tone poem for both. Those viewers of the more left-brained sort that experience love in a more pragmatic form very most likely don’t relate to that – but for those viewers who taste love as a flash of color and beauty will find it easy to fall into the film’s spell. The film’s two leads fall into love almost instantly (after Ewan McGregor’s Christian belts out a wonderful adaptation of Elton John’s “Your Song”, to be precise) – but no bother, love isn’t meant to be practical or realistic for some people, anyways.

The spectacle doesn’t lie simply within the film’s visuals. If anything else seems to get under people’s skin about the film, it’s that much of the film’s cast – including the two leads – aren’t professional singers. But seeing two stars of the likes of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman attempting (and succeeding, as far as my ears are concerned) to belt it out on the big screen add to the film’s spectacle, not detracts from it. It’s simply the glory of seeing Kidman and McGregor doing something most haven’t seen them do before.

What I haven’t seen Luhrmann do before is move a film this dramatically well. His previous film, the decent-enough William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet has obvious elements of drama – but Moulin Rouge! is the superior tragedy. That’s not to imply it’s moving or in any way poignant – especially considering how overblown and intentionally cliche it all is (not to mention that the fact that the heroine dies is told to us in one of the very first lines in the film) – but Luhrmann manages to pull a spectacle of a drama with his technique.

No film of the new century has portrayed such a love for the cinema, especially the films of the old American tradition and the silent era (with the possible – and very different – exception of E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire). It’s one of those films that manages to be just as new and exciting to me every time I view it. It’s a tribute to the film as a visual (and audio) medium – and, as the tagline says: truth, beauty, freedom and above all, love.

This review and all others by John Lars Ericson since September, 2003, can be found at Filmateur

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