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Fabulously camp and stylishly splendid
on 15 June 2014
Moulin Rouge was one of those films that I completely loathed when I was younger. A flashy, hyper-energetic musical that had Obi-Wan Kenobi singing in it was not the type of film that suited the tastes of a sci-fi loving nine year old male. My initial disdain for the film left that impression on me for years as I felt the film was nothing more than a pretentious mess from Baz Luhrmann who is often slated for his frantic and over-indulgent style of filmmaking. I eventually gave into rewatching the film after a friend of mine from drama school recommended me to watch it again. After reluctantly giving in, I was utterly blown away by this film. I realised that my original views were really short-sighted and that Moulin Rouge is an excellent piece of cinema.
I've never been much of a fan of musicals aside from Rocky Horror, Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables and I may have been predisposed to dislike the film at first. But Moulin Rouge has a distinct quality to it that separates it from other musicals. Baz Luhrmann's background in opera gives the film a unique sense of grandness and pace. Some like to label this film as a guilty pleasure because of its over-the-top style and thin plot but Moulin Rouge is not technically supposed to be a film with a meaty and original story. The film is similar in fashion to something like Rocky Horror Picture Show or Flash Gordon in that it is intentionally delivered in a campy and tongue-in-cheek manner. It knows how flamboyant it is and has fun with itself.
That's not to say that the film is devoid of anything resembling good filmmaking however. What sells the film are the dynamic performances from the cast. Ewan McGregor is completely believable as Christian, delivering a charismatic portrayal of a lustful and somewhat naive man enraptured by the world of the Moulin Rouge. His singing does occasionally crack in places but it works in the emotional delivery he gives and his voice on the whole is terrific. Nicola Kidman provides a terrific performance as the sultry Satine, whose promiscuity contrasts with Christian's innocent look on love and she also provides some sweet vocals. McGregor and Kidman have great chemistry together and both emulate the naive childlike romance the two share together that ends tragically, a relationship that Luhrmann previously explored in his Romeo and Juliet adaptation. Jim Broadbent provides a great flamboyant performance as Zidler and Richard Roxburgh is hilarious as the temperamental and mouth-watering villainous Duke (a much more credible performance than his turn as Dracula in the godawful Van Helsing).
Just as he brought Shakespeare to life through the MTV generation, Luhrmann combines rave culture of the late 90s with the Bohemian lifestyle of 1890s Parisians (Moulin Rouge was only produced at the start of the millennium which explains its more 90s feel). Luhrmann is a director who often blends contemporary culture with the past just as he did recently in The Great Gatsby and he employs it to good effect in this film. The 90s were often a time when love was portrayed from an innocent viewpoint only to be sullied by the culture of drugs. Luhrmann conveyed this also in Romeo and Juliet with the eponymous characters' naive love ending in suicide. Here, he compares dying from tuberculosis to death from an overdose.
The songs in Moulin Rouge (with the exception of 'Come What May') are all covers and mashups of popular songs which seems unoriginal of the film yet they compliment the tone and scenery of the film greatly. Jukebox musicals only tend to work when the songs reflect the themes and/or fit in against the backdrop. Musicals like We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia fail in that regard because they are more like bad karaoke performances of your favourite songs by popular bands. Moulin Rouge employs this differently by allowing the songs to fit in with the characters' emotions. The 'Le Tango de Roxanne' scene works especially as it conveys Christian's intense love for Satine yet also displays the dark secret that Satine possesses. The film looks great too. The setting of 19th century Paris is brought to life by the psychedelic glamorous visuals and the climax of 'Come What May' is brought to life in spectacular fashion at the end.
Moulin Rouge is quite possibly my favourite musical and definitely one of those films that you have to love (despite my apathy for it as a pre-teen youngster). The performances in the film are absolutely terrific and the production design envelopes you in. The story isn't the most original but it doesn't need to be for you to be enamoured and bewildered by the experience. It's one of those films that is meant to be more of an emotional piece of filmmaking rather than cerebral and in that regard, it is tremendous. 10/10