(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: A poet (Ewan McGregor) falls for a beautiful courtesan (Nicole Kidman) whom a jealous duke covets in this stylish musical, with music drawn from familiar 20th century sources.
– From IMDB Page
The first time I saw Moulin Rouge! I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. It got to the scene where Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor sing “I Will Always Love You” to each other and a shower of sparkles explodes behind them.
In the shape of a heart.
I thought, “Oh my God. I’m actually embarrassed about watching this. And I’m embarrassed for the actors.”
This kind of stuff repels me to the very core of my being. Thing is, Moulin Rouge! is a Baz Luhrmann film. Each film in his Red Curtain Trilogy is a hyper-kinetic world, operating beyond the constraints of logic or time (it seems, in fact, as if everything happens at once in a Luhrmann film). What you’re watching is unadulterated image and emotion, something like a drug trip or a visual adrenaline rush.
Basically, you have to let go. If you don’t your brain will cave in.
I knew what I had signed up for before watching it. I had seen Romeo + Juliet (1996) when I was twelve and it had been my most intense film experience until then. In fact, most of the time I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. It took me years just to get used to it, and even now I’m sure I can’t watch it sitting down.
This was part of what drew me to Moulin Rouge!: just to see what Luhrmann would do. And oh boy, did he do a lot. But beneath all of the spectacle the story is quite simple. It’s also about Luhrmann’s favorite subject:
Moulin Rouge! is a love story. In fact, it’s the doomed love story we’ve heard hundreds of times, but it takes place in that enclosed, cartoonish and incomparable Luhrmann universe. That’s what makes it original. Although it’s a culmination of so much culture and storytelling it doesn’t matter. Luhrmann found a way to make that story important all over again.
I have to credit the film’s leads for making it work, let alone making us care about them. McGregor’s Christian and Kidman’s Satine are archetypes- ideas rather than people.
However, both take these archetypes and go above and beyond expectations. This especially goes for Kidman, who put so much into her role it reminds me of the Nicole Kidman I miss watching- the Kidman of To Die For (1995) or The Hours (2002). In Moulin Rouge! I see a woman whose emotions range from elation and love to fear and despair- you can almost feel how taxing it was for her. “I didn’t expect it to cost so much emotion,” she admitted afterwards, and it’s no wonder why. I’m sure a busted knee and broken ribs didn’t help either.
Aside from this, re-watching Moulin Rouge made me realize just how large its spectacle was. Luhrmann pushes and pushes and pushes his actors to do things I can hardly believe (and most are accomplished for a shot lasting less than 2 seconds). I have no idea how he directed or convinced them at times, especially when his ideas go to extremes.
For example: there’s a scene where a man is punched so hard his gun flies from his hand, through a window and bounces off the Eiffel Tower. When I imagine Luhrmann pitching this idea to his actors, crew and FX artists all I can see is Tom Crooze meddling with John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II (2000) (“This mission just got a hell of a lot more impossibler”).
Then there’s the “Like A Virgin” sequence. I keep asking people, “Do you think Zidler and the Duke hooked up?” I don’t know. Champagne bottles popped and the lights went out.
If so that was a pretty wild, weird date.
But in the end showmanship doesn’t rule the day. I think the reason why I own Moulin Rouge! is because it involved me in a story I don’t usually care about. I suppose that’s the same reason why I’ll see The Great Gatsby in May, although I’m not a fan of the book and- straight up- this adaptation kind of scares the shit out of me.
It’s all because of Luhrmann. It has been twelve years and I’m still curious about what he’ll do. And like the Moulin Rouge, Paris and the world he created-
– I’m sure he will make it his own once again.
With Moulin Rouge! it took fifty minutes to convince me, to make me realize a Luhrmann film isn’t meant to be understood but enjoyed. As I sat in my battered, creaking seat at the Southgate Cinema I simply gave in.
“This,” I thought, “is what dreams are made of.”