Glimpse of the future

In an age when movie musicals are mostly children's cartoons, Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" brilliantly reinvents the genre and opens the door to a new cinematic style. So why didn't the critics get it?

By Julie Talen
Published February 7, 2002 9:00AM (EST)

I love "Moulin Rouge." Other people don't. I don't understand these people. Perhaps none of them got to see the movie the way it (and all great movies) was meant to be seen, on an enormous screen, with a sold-out crowd, in the kind of cavernous theater that only a handful of big cities have anymore.

The moment Ewan McGregor, clad in lederhosen and a silly hat, burst into "The Hills Are Alive," the whole theater bought it completely. We laughed when men in tuxedos sang "Smells Like Teen Spirit" while colliding with girls in lace colors you never imagined. We applauded the dance numbers. When a threadbare song, ruined from decades of radio overplay, suddenly sprang from our young poet: "My gift is my song -- and this one's for you," it was like hearing it for the first time.

How wonderful life is while you're in the world. Admit it -- you know you're in love when you're not only listening to those soft hits on the radio, you're agreeing with them. The first love duet between the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and her poet lover is swathed in swatches of such hits. One critic (I've forgotten who) faulted the incompleteness, the fragmentary quality, as if it were a flaw. In fact, it's an unerring sense of the shared emotional scale of each FM hit song. "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann seems to know precisely how much of each tune we need to hear (not much) before the pleasurable shock of recognition sinks in. (And it is a pleasure. An audible gasp shot through the Ziegfeld Theater in New York when the hot-blooded Argentinean actor, explaining to the heartbroken poet the agony of loving a prostitute, slowly builds a tango which becomes, within two syllables, the instantly recognizable "Roxanne.")

Other words from other reviewers -- like "potpourri" or "anachronism" or "mélange" -- misread Luhrmann's mastery of a different vocabulary for a different purpose. It doesn't matter that Nirvana, Nat King Cole, the Police and Madonna are sung in the wrong context, by a singer of the wrong gender and at the wrong time. These songs have their unity in the great electronic now of radio, Walkmans, jukeboxes: the collective shared present we can hear, continuously, somewhere at any given moment in the world. I once heard "Fire and Rain" in a taxi in Beijing. If life were a musical, these would be the songs we'd sing. Not least because we already know all the words.

Luhrmann does something very old -- the musical -- in a very new way. We live in a real world of constant visual stimulation, a riot of competing electronic images. To get our attention, visual material must be faster, must capture our peripheral vision. Luhrmann and his editor, Jill Bilcock, grasp how abrupt the pace needs to be to hold our ravaged attention spans. With so much to see, the glimpse becomes its own unit. I call this furious visual field -- the Web, TV, video games, flat screens, movies like this one -- glimpse culture. "Moulin Rouge" is a glimpse musical. So we don't get entire dances, we don't get entire songs. We don't need them.

The editing style of "Moulin Rouge" seems to stun people who don't understand that ever since Bob Fosse, editors on dance movies double as choreographers. The edit is the dance. Bilcock, like her colleagues on "All That Jazz," "Fame" and "Flashdance" -- all of whom won Oscars for editing -- surely deserves Academy recognition this year.

Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, anchor this imagery with traditional ballast, swiftly established: Boy meets girl, sings to girl, kisses girl, loses girl, girl sings, boy and girl sing together, love arrives. The show must go on, since this is not just a musical, but that peculiar branch of musical that exists only in the movies: "Let's put on a show." Central to such movies is the "pitch song," in which eager showfolk throw themselves into a rough-and-ready version of the play to come ("That's Entertainment" in "The Band Wagon" would be the classic example).

The pitch song -- which has resulted in some of the most memorable moments in screen history -- serves important functions, all of them evident in "Moulin Rouge": a celebration of theater and make-believe, a goal for the third act and a plot that unites a motley group of unrelated songs, in this case songs lifted from India's steamy film musicals. The genius behind this kind of musical, MGM producer Arthur Freed, had collections of leftover songs lying around; he hauled in writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to link them together into "Band Wagon" and "Singin' in the Rain." (Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe, never wrote this kind of musical; their songs always belonged to a coherent plot.)

An original tune in "Moulin Rouge," "Someday I'll Fly Away," is what Disney animation used to call the "page 20 want song." It tells us what the girl or boy (or mermaid) really wants and will spend the movie trying to get: marriage ("Someday My Prince Will Come"), escape from a mundane life ("Something's Coming") or even just legs ("I Want to Be Where the People Are").

The Paris created by Catherine Martins, the production designer of "Moulin Rouge," belongs to that handful of visionary films in which, as Ridley Scott said of his own "Blade Runner," "The script is the set design." I hope Martins' work won't go unrecognized because she happens to compete in a year full of hobbits and wizards. The fabulous design of "Moulin Rouge" harks back to a time when movies were movies and life was life. No one thought, in the 1930s, that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing in real rooms. Josef von Sternberg created a fictional Shanghai on the Paramount backlot for the lustrous "Shanghai Express" (1932); later, traveling in China, he was gratified to see how different it was from the one he had made.

This may be where the "Moulin Rouge" lovers and haters part company. Many of us demand that movies be realistic, even though that involves a mode as artificial as anything in "Moulin Rouge." Dissolves, long lenses, drop focus, fast film, Foley sound effects, digital manipulation, production design that painstakingly mimics the ordinary -- all these techniques spell "naturalism" to us, the "real" in film. Maybe some people can't dwell emotionally in a world that does not conform to a film-based realism as rigid as the neoclassical paintings of Ingres or David, the brittle 19th century works against which the impressionists rebelled. In this environment, the movie musical survived the past two decades only by reverting to children's cartoons.

Part of the brilliance of "Moulin Rouge" is that Luhrmann leads us by the hand -- jaded, visually saturated and reality-spoiled viewers that we are -- into a world that not only doesn't exist but never could. The moment our 1900 hero opens his mouth and sings a song that everyone knows was in a 1964 film, Luhrmann is telling us that we're in his world now. There are different rules in his world: people sing the songs you know. A green fairy becomes her own chorus line and sprinkles green fairy dust on our still-singing heroes, now in top hats, who fly into the roiling Moulin Rouge. Either you take Luhrmann's hand and hold on tight or you let go, like the child in a fairytale, and are lost forever.

For me, holding on through three viewings and the DVD (in which you can see marvelously complete versions of the dances), "Moulin Rouge" belongs in a group of rare films -- "The Red Shoes," "An American in Paris," "Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon," "West Side Story," "Cabaret" -- that transform dance and music into a form unique to the screen.

Like "Cabaret," to which it owes a huge debt, "Moulin Rouge" begins with a British (in this case, Scottish) innocent in Europe. (McGregor even arrives at the train station in the same way Michael York does in "Cabaret.") Set loose in the capital of art and depravity, this young man is taken in hand by a girl, the star of an enclosed world from which she longs to escape. As in "The Red Shoes," young love must compete with a soulless, self-defined world for the heart of this talented, beautiful, morally divided girl, on whom everyone -- particularly a craven, manipulative impresario -- depends. As in every Marlene Dietrich film directed by von Sternberg (or every one except "Blonde Venus"), poverty is handsome and power is ugly and they compete and confuse everyone.

This movie references other movies the way Shakespeare references the Bible. And it's not just showing off: During the pitch song, Ziegler, the impresario played by Jim Broadbent, sings the villain's part and Satine remarks: "Oh, Harold, no one can play him like you can." Ziegler replies: "No one's going to." For those who recognize it, this lift from "The Band Wagon" tells us that Ziegler is the film's soul-stealing Mephistopheles.

Two great Hitchcock love scenes simultaneously wrap around the climactic lovers' duet between Kidman and McGregor (a Dolly Parton song made famous by Whitney Houston). We see both the fireworks that frame Cary Grant and Grace Kelly's embrace in "To Catch a Thief" and the 360-degree shot around Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, locked in a kiss, in "Vertigo." McGregor's startling rendition of Stewart's hoarse accusation from the "Vertigo" tower scene -- "You learned your part very well" -- invokes that betrayal of love just as Satine's enraged lover pushes her up the stairs. It's like a jazz musician's quote of another master's tune for an audience aware of both.

Luhrmann and Bilcock edit musically. Luhrmann is a cinematic equivalent of Gustav Mahler, who composed for enormous orchestras but created climaxes in which perhaps only three instruments play. At each climax, like a long intake of breath before the dive, we wait -- and the finish explodes. Satine faints on the trapeze at the penultimate word of her number. In the "Roxanne" tango, the entire Moulin Rouge -- boy, Duke, dancers and the girl herself -- must wait to see if Satine will save the show by betraying the man she loves. At the height of the Bollywood-style closing extravaganza, Kidman sings a fragile a cappella call across a silent room. Luhrmann knows how to use silence.

No American male that I know thinks of Kidman as a sex goddess. She is not our Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo -- mostly because no one is -- but also because her best roles have always been as an extremely tough cookie, a cold and scary manipulator of men. Part of the miracle of "Moulin Rouge" is to give Kidman the warmth on screen that I suspect she has always craved. The ice queen melteth. In her earliest scenes, she uncannily resembles Ann Margaret (who also yearned to be a real actress) and then Claudette Colbert, the cheerful, comic sacrificial lamb. Yet by the time Dietrich's veil shadows her face or, like Garbo's Camille, she falls to the floor, with her lover throwing money at her, we believe she's just a girl in love. Who wouldn't be, with McGregor singing to you night and day? The man can act more convincingly singing his heart out than most actors can just standing and talking.

The only realism in "Moulin Rouge" is emotional. It survives comedy scenes so extreme that sound effects accompany the actors turning their heads. In his autobiography, Jean Renoir, who directed "French Can Can" in 1955 as a direct rebuke to John Huston's "Moulin Rouge" of two years before (both films are actually rather leaden, except for their blazing dance sequences) wrote, "It is possible to be improbable and still true." In this sense, "Moulin Rouge" is true. Its visual universe is complete, its aural universe is adept and its exploration of both is entirely cinematic. At its core, it is a most amazing thing, a love story we believe.

Julie Talen

Julie Talen is a writer and director living in New York.

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