not in our stars, but in ourselves
7/52: A movie you’ve seen more than once
I don’t do things by halves, Reader. Some people may see a favorite movie twice or even three times. Some dedicated people might watch their favorite movie ten times or so. When I was a teenager, I saw Moulin Rouge! at least 100 times. I’m not kidding. I kept a tally. I watched it at least once a day, over a period of many months; and during summer vacation, I would watch all the special features, too. Some have accused me of being obsessive, and I suppose they’re not entirely wrong.
But here’s the thing: all 100+ viewings happened when I was 16 and 17. I don’t think I’ve watched Moulin Rouge! again in at least ten years. I’ve remembered it somewhat fondly, but without being tempted to re-watch it. It was just one of those teenage infatuations, you know? Well, it is Valentine’s Day, after all, and if there’s ever a better time to revisit a two-hour paean to “truth, beauty, freedom, and above all – love!!!” it’s today.
The plot essentially follows every tragic nineteenth-century novel about hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and lungs-of-mysterious-death, but such as it is: in 1899, the “Summer of Love” , and young Christian (Ewan McGregor) has just moved to Paris from England. He wants to join the “Bohemian Revolution” , because he really, really, really believes in love. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and impressing all Toulouse’s Bohemian friends with his extraordinary gift for song and poetry (i.e., singing late twentieth-century pop songs, all of which amaze them), he wins a gig as the writer for their new musical, Spectacular Spectacular. It’s going to be performed at the fabled Moulin Rouge, with Satine (Nicole Kidman) as the star. She sings and dances, but her primary function is as the queen courtesan. It takes about 0.02 seconds for Christian to fall agonizingly in love with her, and about 1.02 seconds for her to fall in love with him. Alas, all is not well: not only has the Moulin Rouge’s impresario, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), more or less promised her to a gross/rapey Duke (Richard Roxburgh); she’s also dying of tuberculosis. There are lots of complications, lots of songs, lots of jump cuts, and then – spoiler alert – she dies in Christian’s arms.
I sound cynical when I rehash all of this, I know. Part of the problem is that Baz Luhrmann has proven so consistently disappointing since the 16-year-old me used to worship at the altar of Moulin Rouge!: Australia and The Great Gatsby are, while triumphs of production design, absolutely terrible in every other aspect. But what was it that drew me to it, again and again and again, when I was a tender lass?
First and foremost, there’s Ewan. I loved him then. I love him now. He’s so cheeky and charming and child-like in his enthusiasm. How am I supposed to avoid falling in love with him? How could anyone? His version of “Your Song” was, honest-to-pete, an awakening for me. Ah, I thought, so this is what love is! So this is what it feels like! And you can sneer at it all you like, but I feel sorry for you if you do.
As you can see in that clip, and as the rest of the movie proves time and again, the costumes and set design (all by Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin) are all extraordinary. It’s an aesthete’s delight: even costumes that are on-screen for less than the blink of an eye, even sets that function more-or-less as stages seen only from far away, are tremendously detailed. For whatever other flaws the film has, it never lacks for visual pleasure. It obviously follows the Mae West axiom: too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
On the subject of “too much,” Moulin Rouge! is a heavily edited film. Back in the bad old days, when I was your typical MTV-watching teenage dirtbag, the fast editing didn’t strike me as odd or undesirable. It was syntactically similar to a music video, or maybe even an Eisenstein movie: cut, cut, cut, cut. Emotion, emotion, emotion, emotion. It only takes a frame or two to make it seem like your hero/heroine/pop star is reacting appropriately to whatever the main narrative necessitates; after that, cut to something else. Do kids these days still watch music videos? Has the editing changed all that much? I tend to stick to re-watching the classics, so I just don’t know much about the current trends.
A huge part of the film’s appeal for me, as a dumb young teenager, was its bullheaded insistence on Love as the only thing that matters, the only salvation, the only thing worth fighting for. How much did I know about love back then? Not much, of course, and probably even less than most 16-year-olds know. But I knew how much the idea of it mattered to me, and it’s obvious that the teenage ideation thereof is equally as important to Luhrmann.
Well, how did it strike me on yet another repeat viewing, more than ten years later? I still love Ewan. I know that much.
I still enjoy some of the musical numbers, daft as they are. And the production design is still a triumph. As for the rest…well, I don’t know. I wasn’t having a bad time while I watched, but I wasn’t able to stop marveling at how jejune everything was. Nor was I able to stop wondering if this was the beginning of the trend – which has stuck with us, off and on, since 2001 – wherein actors who’ve never sung before lead a musical. There were isolated incidents before Moulin Rouge!, I know, but it seems that there have been very few musicals led by trained singers and dancers since. Way back when, if the studio preferred star power above natural (or learned) talent, they would happily dub the leading lady’s thin vocals for those of Marni Nixon. Now, we just get thin vocals: Kidman’s here, Renée Zellweger’s in Chicago, almost everyone in Les Misérables. It’s nice to give all these high-school play-actors a chance to shine, but…I can’t finish that sentence without sounding cruel. (Obviously, Ewan is beyond reproach. If he were the lead singer of a rock band, I would listen to all their songs all the time.)
Unlike the 16-year-old version of me, I now have some insight into the trajectory that Luhrmann’s career has taken, and it’s possible to see the signs of rot in Moulin Rouge! – signs of rot galore, in fact. As in Gatsby, we have an idiotic combination of voiceover and words themselves presented on-screen, as Christian types them. As in Australia (and others, too), we have so many nods to so many different sources that it feels more like a collage, or an idea board, than interpretation or homage. Does Luhrmann have ideas of his own? This isn’t a case of Tarantino using a million different genres and movie references to suit his own purposes. This is a case of a forger who wants to forge everything. It’s entertaining, but it’s not exactly the mark of a great filmmaker.
Don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s not as if my love has transformed into hate. How could it? Teenage love isn’t real love anyway. I see the problems much more clearly now than I could ten or more (many more, let me tell you) years ago, but that’s not a dealbreaker. I still love a good swoon now and again; and despite its over-the-top everything, despite its inability to hold back or exercise restraint, despite all of this, Moulin Rouge! still makes me swoon from time to time. Shh, don’t tell anyone. It’s Valentine’s Day, for chrissakes. Let me be mawkish for the nonce.