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[whitespace] Aussie Nightmare

A trip through the mill in Baz Luhrmann's gauche 'Moulin Rouge'

By Richard von Busack

WHAT CAN YOU do about a director who looks back at the long history of the musical film and sees only vulgarity and gaudiness? Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge touches upon everything from the Broadway melody revues to the collected works of Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber. It's all here, and it's all barely recognizable: from the kickline musicals of the 1930s to the Cinemascope extravagance of the 1950s to the "Absolutely Boring Tango" monstrosities of today--not to mention the "song montages" popularized by 1970s TV specials, back when the likes of Donny and Marie used to segue "You Are My Lucky Star" into "Stars Fell on Alabama." (Luhrmann also raids "Like a Virgin" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). It's not a mix, it's a mess. This turbulent pastiche is spackled with glitter and thrown into an electric fan and pasted together almost at random.

From the title, you'd expect the story of Toulouse-Lautrec and his hopeless passions for exotic dancers. Actually, it's the 1000th remake of Camille, Paris, 1901: The proprietor of Paris' sinful Moulin Rouge nightclub (Jim Broadbent) mortgages his star, Satine (Nicole Kidman), to a lecherous duke to finance the theater's conversion from nightclub to legitimate stage. A poor but pure writer (Ewan McGregor) screws up the deal by falling in love with the courtesan. The seriousness of her illness--key in the original version--is kept from Satine. Thus what could be seen as a prefeminist tale of a doomed woman trying to live her life as she sees fit is mangled here. Satine gets pushed about from one role to another--lover, concubine--before deciding that the important thing is "The Show Must Go On." Why must it, when we've seen how grotesque the Moulin Rouge audience is?

Luhrmann's musical isn't justified by its selling points: Kidman's body, the sometimes impressive sets (a Paris based on Tim Burton's Gotham City) and an Indian-Bollywood-themed closing number in which, for a moment, the use of color seems spectacular instead of retina-burning. Most of the time, you can't really see anything, anywhere, thanks to Luhrmann's unforgivably frenzied cutting; the restless film seems to have been edited by a nest of methedrined blue jays.

When not slicing the film to ribbons, Luhrmann shows a fondness for drecky music. The film really has two themes: the song "Nature Boy," popularized by Nat King Cole and considered corny even in its day--Bugs Bunny was cracking wise about it 50 years ago; and Elton John's "Your Song," which is recited (again and again, with the solemnity of a man reading the Declaration of Independence). Both of these tunes are meant to represent the Bohemian code, summed up as "Truth, beauty, freedom and love."

Truth, while travestying the historical realities of fin-de-siècle Paris. Beauty, while wallowing in the grossness of Broadbents's makeup (he looks like prop comdian Rip Taylor ready to bop you with a rubber chicken). Freedom, while furiously cutting the dancers so that you never see the way they move. And finally, Lurhmann manifests his love of musicals by parodying and vandalizing them. Trying to push the musical forward into the new century, Luhrmann has only set it back to the state it was in at the end of the 1960s: bloated, gauche, overpriced, crushing in its hugeness, staleness and confusion.

Moulin Rouge (PG-13; 120 min.), directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, photographed, photographed by Donal McAlpine and starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and Jim Broadbent, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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