Musicals don’t make sense. Like, at all. There is no way, shape, or form that can be used to make it seem real or natural for characters in a film to suddenly burst into song. And yet it’s that inherent sense of unreality that allows for such wonderful, moving, and inventive storytelling in a genre that welcomes rule-breaking and cannot survive without its often extreme theatricality. It’s because of that almost-dichotomy that Moulin Rouge! is both a fantastic musical and the best film that writer-director Baz Luhrmann will ever make. Luhrmann’s lurid, amphetamine-fueled movies have always existed outside the normal bounds of storytelling, and it was clear from the first frames of his debut, 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, that the man was anything but subtle. That first film made his name into an adjective describing keyed-up and intense visual experiences, but the story itself was a predictable (if enjoyable) romance about ballroom dancing. When he followed that in 1996 with Romeo + Juliet, it became clear that he was growing more confident in his own hyperactive style even as he moved into more dramatically compelling stories, creating an operatic and unabashed tribute to William Shakespeare’s classic. But it was in 2001 with Moulin Rouge! — the final installment in his “Red Curtain” trilogy — that Luhrmann outdid himself, marrying the heartfelt costumed romance of his first film with the tragic love story of his second, creating something grander and stranger and more beautiful than anything he’d done before. And by making a colossal, Bollywood-inspired musical, Luhrmann finally found the perfect genre, a type of outside-the-box narrative that complemented his desire to tell stories on an extravagant scale. It just plain worked.
The film’s winking self-awareness comes into play right at the beginning, opening up on a red curtain that pulls back to reveal a movie screen as a tiny conductor appears at the bottom of the frame to lead the 20th Century Fox fanfare and the opening suite that runs through the major songs of the film. The credit sequence and the first act of the film are almost willfully overstylized, as if Luhrmann is trying to decide whether to top himself or just turn away viewers who don’t want to see something a little wackier than usual. Sitting alone in his room in turn-of-the-century Paris, Christian (Ewan McGregor) mourns for the dead love he’s lost, and he types out his story as the film flashes back a year to when Christian was new to the city. He’s infatuated with the ideas of love and life, but he’s never been in love, which makes it hard for him to write about it and break into the Bohemian scene. But he catches a break when an unconscious Argentinean falls through his roof, followed by a dwarf dressed as a nun. (Hey, it’s Luhrmann.) The little man is Toulouse-Latrec (John Leguizamo), and he recruits Christian to help him write a new play for Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), owner of the Moulin Rouge nightclub and cabaret. The sequence is insanely, frenetically edited by Jill Bilcock, who’d worked with Luhrmann on his two previous films, but Luhrmann isn’t just blending sound and image at light speed to feign energy or import; on the contrary, he knows exactly what he’s doing. The film oscillates between fast numbers and slow ones, between scenes of comedic excess and moments of quiet tenderness, and Luhrmann knows that the only way to get the impact of the change is to show it all. In addition to mirroring his youthful passion and excitement, Christian’s introduction to Toulouse-Latrec is a perfect example of the way Luhrmann can dramatically shift gears within a scene, as Christian brings his new friends to awed silence by taking the song they can’t quite get right and bursting forth with, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” McGregor sings in a bright tenor, his voice soaring over the action and commanding it to be still. It’s impossible to translate in words the emotional shift of this scene, this joyous and corny and unironic explosion of passion captured in a lyric from a stage musical that came 40 years earlier.
Because that’s what Moulin Rouge! is: a love song to love songs, and a film musical in the classic sense that recycles older hits and rearranges them into something new. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) did the same thing, taking songs from MGM musicals of the 1930s and sticking them into a fresh narrative. Luhrmann’s film samples and lifts and remixes and combines decades of pop, rock, and (in a surprisingly not-terrible way) disco to create an emotional stream of consciousness that allows the characters to both announce their feelings and forward the plot by belting out ballads from the bottom of their heart. Christian is taken to the Moulin Rouge to present his work to Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan and the star attraction of the club, and for whom Christian develops the kind of instant but pure infatuation only found in film. Mistaking him for the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), a financier, Satine does her best to seduce Christian in her private chambers, but he resists her advances as he fumbles over his words and attempts to do what he came to do: woo her, not just win her. Against the wall and unable to think, he begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape.
But what elevates the film from a simple romantic fable is its built-in destruction of the happiness the two leads have found. The prologue to Romeo + Juliet spoke of the imminent and unavoidable deaths of the title characters, and Luhrmann borrowed that same idea by having Christian announce to the viewer at the very beginning that he would fall in love with Satine, and that she would die. Luhrmann spends the rest of the film tracing “the fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,” which begins to unravel not long after Christian and Satine get together: Already sick with tuberculosis, she’s forced to hide her love for Christian to string along the Duke, who becomes jealous and suspicious of Christian and Satine even as Christian struggles to believe that a courtesan could really have fallen in love with him. He writes a song for her play that serves as a code between them, allowing them to declare their love as publicly as they dare, but it’s a only a temporary fix for what are turning out to be too many problems. The distrust and envy culminate in a masterful scene that’s the best fragment of film Luhrmann has ever made, a tango based around The Police’s “Roxanne” that’s epic and swirling and never less than totally arresting. It’s slightly cheesy but completely genuine, which is right where Luhrmann lives.
There’s a beauty in the story’s inevitability as Luhrmann carries it to its rightful conclusion, and despite the late presence of an old-Hollywood rendition of “Like a Virgin” for comic relief, Moulin Rouge! stays firmly on course for tragedy: Through a series of lies and betrayals, Christian and Satine are torn apart and come together again, and Luhrmann perfectly fuses the tenderness of a love story with the pain of loss. McGregor and Kidman are naturals in their roles, creating a polished chemistry that complements their singing voices, which are sweet and convincing precisely because they’re nothing more than above average. If they were trained vocalists, or had been dubbed, the movie would not have worked as well because that kind of slickness would have been antithetical to the purity of emotion for which Luhrmann strives. These people are acting unrealistically, but they have to sound and feel like a “real” person launching into song, and for that, McGregor and Kidman are (pitch) perfect. Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. Moulin Rouge! is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Moulin Rouge! / Daniel Carlson
Pajiba Blockbusters | March 3, 2009 | Comments ()