Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Friday: Moulin Rouge (2001)

Moulin Rouge is an enjoyable musical with moments of brilliance. But there are two flaws that keep the movie from being a great movie. At times, Moulin Rouge tries to be too clever, but at other times, it is not clever enough.

** spoiler alert **

What Is Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom), Moulin Rouge is an unusual 2001 musical based loosely on Guiseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata. It takes place in Paris in 1899, during the "Bohemian Revolution," and tells the story of young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls in love with cabaret actress Satine (Nicole Kidman), who happens to be incapable of falling in love and suffers from tuberculosis. The romance between the two is interrupted by the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who is promised Satine in exchange for investing his money into rebuilding the Moulin Rouge and paying for the production of the Indian-inspired "Spectacular Spectacular." As they prepare for the show, Satine and Christian hide their love from the Duke. His discovery of their love, mixed with Satine’s seeming betrayal of Christian, leads to the climax.

But it isn’t the story that makes Moulin Rouge so interesting, it’s the music. Unlike most musicals, with songs specifically written for the musical or its corresponding stage production, Moulin Rouge samples modern pop music. At times, whole songs are sampled, with or without changes to the lyrics. And in these instances, Moulin Rouge is typically brilliant. Elton John’s "Your Song" is woven brilliantly into the story line, as it is first spoken, then sung, then spoken again. The Police’s "Roxanne" was given new life as a Tango, which also drives the plot. Queen’s somewhat obscure "The Show Must Go On," from Freddy Mercury’s last album before his death (1991’s Innuendo), is equally well woven into the plot. The most traditional musical number, "Like A Virgin," also is brilliantly done, with the original lyrics intact, but their meaning changed as Zidler and his brigade of waiters chase the Duke around the room trying to convince him that Satine is both a shy demur girl and yet a wild, passionate creature. Only one song is truly original -- "Come What May" was written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), but was never used prior to Moulin Rouge.

It is in these musical moments that the cleverness of the writer shines through and the film is most enjoyable.
Too Clever By Half
But Moulin Rouge is also a great example of writers trying to be too clever. Moulin Rouge takes its plot from a combination of La Boheme (young writer falls in love with sick girl), La Traviata (courtesan learns to love) and the Greek Tragedy Orpheus and Eurydice (musical genius must venture into the underworld to retrieve his love). This makes for a complex story, but in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem arises when Luhrmann compounds the complexity by shooting the film as a story within a story within a story.

It’s the last story that’s the problem. Generally, the movie is the story of the love of Christian, the penniless writer, and Satine, the loveless actress, who must hide their love from the evil Duke as they work on the story of the penniless sitar player and the loveless courtesan, who must hide their love from the evil Maharaja. Those stories are intertwined enough to challenge the viewer. But on top of this, the writer adds a third story, as we are reminded several times that this entire story is being written by McGregor, a penniless writer sitting alone in his apartment with a typewriter.

There is no reason to add this third layer. In fact, it ultimately detracts from the film, because just when the love story of Christian and Satine comes to a happy and then tragic ending, we are quickly whisked back to McGregor’s apartment, thus taking away the emotional impact of what we have just seen. What's more, this is done for no discernible reason. We are neither given further details of McGregor’s life, like why this story would be significant to him, nor are we shown that despite our grief the “real” Satine still lives. Basically, returning to this third story is the film equivalent of Luhrmann telling the audience, “just kidding.”

But even within the story within the story, the writer gets too clever. As the story unfolds, we are treated to constant foreshadowing of Christian/Satine’s story by the sitar player/ courtesan story. But the foreshadowing is done so constantly and so heavy-handedly that it stops adding tension, by giving the audience hints of what may come, and instead eliminates tension by announcing to the audience exactly what is about to happen right before it does.

Moreover, the writer crams Moulin Rouge full of historical references. For example, the elephant in which Satine lives, really was constructed outside the actual Moulin Rouge. The character of Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was an actual midget and is considered one of the greatest post-impressionist painters. And many of the strangest images in the movie come directly from the paintings of Toulouse-Lautric. Even the green fairy (Kylie Minogue) is a reference to a famous drink from the period, absinth, which apparently caused madness in many a Bohemian artist. But these references are so fantastic and so strange -- and the audience is given no way to know that they are indeed historically accurate -- that the audience is left feeling that the director is simply trying to clutter the film with surrealistic images. Thus, rather than adding to the movie’s depth, they only confuse and distract from the film.
Not Clever Enough
Yet, in other ways, Moulin Rouge is not clever enough, particularly with some of the sampled songs. As noted above, all but one of the songs is taken from modern pop music. Some are taken in their entirety, but others are not. These others were created by sampling several pop songs, sometimes as little as one lyric, and then mixing the samples together to form medleys. The lyrics were then altered as needed to fit the story, turning these songs into Frankensongs. Finally, the actors recorded the new songs to give the vocals continuity.

But It is in the Frankensongs that the cleverness fails. Many times, the musical combinations are so jarring, particularly when a different sampled song is used for each new line, that no flow is created. At other times, the lyrics simply become non-sense. And unfortunately, some of the key moments in the film are done in this style. For example, in a particularly important scene that should establish the chemistry between Christian and Satine, Christian tries to convince Satine to give their love a chance by singing a series of lyrics from different songs that use the word “love.” But while the idea is clever, the execution is not. With each new lyric, the music changes to reflect the song from which the lyric was taken. But these songs don’t meld well together. Thus, rather than becoming an interesting medley, this becomes an exercise in “name that tune.” And McGregor, who I otherwise think is a great actor, does not have the vocal strength to bring order to this jumble. Thus, rather than building chemistry between the characters, this gimmick distracts the audience from the actors.

At the same time, the writer fails to pay the same attention to Satine. Indeed, rather than scouring the music world for replying lyrics, he just lets her sing-speak her responses. This seems lazy, as if the writer could not be bothered. Moreover, in the middle of this song, the writer suddenly switches from finding “love” songs to David Bowie’s "Heroes," which is a total non-sequitor: “we should be lovers” suddenly becomes “we could be heroes”? How the characters would be considered heroes is never explained, indeed, the line seems more like an excuse to get to a favored song rather than anything related to the plot. And even though the writer breaks free from the lyrics of "Heroes" almost immediately, the lyrics he substitutes don’t make a lot of sense. Consider this exchange:
Christian: We could be heroes, just for one day.
Satine: You, you will be mean.
Christian: No I won’t!
Satine: And I, I’ll drink all the time.
Christian: We should be lovers.
Satine: We can’t do that.
Christian: We should be lovers, and that’s a fact.
Satine: Though nothing, will keep us together.
This exchange has little relation to Christian’s prior wooings or Satine’s prior resistance, and there is no hint anywhere else in the plot that Christian is “mean” or that Satine is a drinker. Indeed, this exchange comes across as entirely out of place when it is sung. And all of this causes a key moment in the film, the moment that establishes the love/chemistry between Christian and Satine, to fall flat.
Thus, while I highly recommend Moulin Rouge as an enjoyable and unique experience, its value is ultimately lessened by a writer who cluttered the film with unnecessary distractions and yet, failed to concentrate sufficiently on certain key parts.

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JG said...

That's why I turned it off 30 minutes in. The music thing really got to me. I'm not a fan of that style, simply grabbing pop songs and trying to mash them into the story like mismatched puzzle pieces. I love both Macgregor and Kidman, but this was a fail, other than the colors and costumes were beautiful. Visually it was very stunning. So if you can watch it on mute.....

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I think that is what turned many people off right away.

I personally, have no problems with the idea of mashing pop songs together, but I don't think they were careful enough. I think the writer should have taken more time or gotten a second set of eyes, and reconsidered some of the songs they used and some of the lyrics.

If they had done that, I think this could have been a great film.

Writer X said...

I loved STRICTLY BALLROOM and was excited to see MOULIN ROUGE when it came out. I thought it was good, not great, and it was refreshing to watch two actors who stretched themselves in such different roles. Plus, I'm a sucker for musical productions.

I agree with you: the story within a story within a story thing got cumbersome, and bordered on sensory overload. By the end of this movie, I had a headache.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I also loved Strictly Ballroom! What a great movie. I was always amazed that Scott didn't become a bigger star afterwards.

Like you, I was excited to see Moulin Rouge. I thought the concept sounded great. I like Kidman and McGregor has really impressed me at time. And I thought Luhrmann would be a great director.

But it didn't quite work. As I said, I like it, but there's something wrong with the film that keeps me from calling it a great movie. And I think that is all the clutter that the writer leaves in. I really think this movie is a warning that trying to be too clever can ruin what would otherwise be a great work.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I couldn't get more than about ten minutes into the movie, and I tried several times. I much prefer the 1952 Jose Ferrer version which really did the story of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Even Zsa Zsa Gabor was good in it. The can-can (and a hint at why it was really so shocking), plenty of great music (including, of course, Offenbach's "Orpheus in Hades Overture"), and the early appearances of young Theodore Bikel, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The "Theme from Moulin Rouge" got an academy award nomination, and was a big Percy Faith hit re-titled "Where Is Your Heart?" The new version is basically silly people doing silly things and saying even sillier things. As for the cinematography, the original was nominated for a special academy award for color film-making, and deserved it. It was nominated for seven other academy awards and won two (best direction and best costumes). All things considered, the original is a classic, the new one a waste of time.

CrisD said...


I am so glad you are not too harsh on my beloved "Moulin Rouge"! girls sang "Come What May!"" in their bedrooms into a hairbrush for hours
2.My eldest is the spitting image of Nicole w/ the height and red hair (she gets it from me...ha-ha -reason 2.5)

It may be terribly flawed BUT I loved it-"Come What May!"
Catch the U-tube cut of it and bring your hankies!

Have a super weekend!

CrispyRice said...

Add me to the "Strictly Ballroom" fanclub!

And I liked Moulin Rouge, too. It was just fun. I don't think we were meant to think too much about it, and I enjoy it as an over-the-top fantasy.

Is it crammed overfull of everything? Yup, but it wouldn't be half as good as it is if you took stuff out. That's the point of it. Like a Dagwood sandwich. Not something you want everyday, but once in a while, it just hits the spot.

And thanks for the recommendation LawHawk, I've never seen that but I'll look for it.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, I really do like the movie, I just feel it could have been a good deal better. I like your list! :-)

My favorite song in the film is easily Roxanne -- which I think is redone incredibly well.

Lawhawk, I am definitely a fan of Ferrer, though I haven't seen the 1952 version of Moulin Rouge.

As I stated before, I think that Moulin Rouge is a good film, an interesting film, and a unique film, but I certainly understand why so many people don't like it, and the first ten minutes are perhaps the most difficult/confusing it has to offer.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I don't think the clutter needs to be removed, but I think it could be "decluttered."

For example, either remove the third story within a story, or give it purpose -- like have him run into the "real" Satine.

Also, tighten the lyrics in the Frankensongs, and have the narrator perhaps give a bigger introduction about what was real at the time -- or even start with some of the Toulouse paintings and then meld into the live action.

patti said...

one of my fav soundtracks. especially the divas singing lady marmalade. and roxanne, holy smokes, so well done. on the ipod when running...

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I totally agree on Roxanne and Lady Maramalade. What I really like about Roxanne was that they took a well known song and gave it a truly original treatment that stands as good as the original. That's impressive to me.

I also like Come What May, as Cris D says.

Individualist said...


For me it was the story line and characters were too cliché’. In my estimation strip away the Paris motif, the fancy bohemian fantasy and you have a pimp boyfriend with his working lady girlfriend running a con on a poor Rich Fool. ( I know I know they are always struggling musicians or artists just to doped up to ever finish their masterpieces. ) Once the “jig” is up the rich fool ends up knifed in an alley and the “boyfriend” leaves town to avoid the heat while the Lady of the Evening looks for the next marks (a new boyfriend and a new line of rich fools). For me that reality is too evident in the character’s actions to buy into the “tragic love” soap opera theme. Music was good but if I don't buy into the story as believable I can't get into it.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I'm not sure I agree. I don't see Christian's character as interested at all in the Duke or his money. He only wants Satine. The con-man would be Zidler, who is using Satine to seduce the Duke. Satine seems more than willing to go along with this to get the new Moulin Rouge built. But when she unexpectedly falls in love with Christian, the story changes. Keep in mind, she eventually tries to drive Christian away to save his life. It is only when he returns to tell her off and Toulouse does his thing, that the lovers are brought back together. So I don't see their actions as part of any coordinated scheme.

I do agree about the cliche factors. But then, in many ways, this is meant as a melodrama. And melodrama characters need to be well known to the audience.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - why did you waste all those years lawyering when your true calling is a film critic. Nolte may just become jealous.

I actually liked this film a lot. There a few reasons and they are on a fairly simplistic level. I must admit though, I never really invested in the plot enough to pick up the flaws you mention.

This one one of the first DVD's I played when I built my theater, and one of the first DTS 5.1 soundtracks played in it. As such, the technical look, sound and feel of the movie blew me away. It may not have been even remotely as good as it could have been, but it was a pretty good try, AND a film that shows us thewonderful POTENTIAL of modern day movie making techniques.

The other pieces are: I hadn't really seen a musical for a while so it was quite welcome. Second, I personally like Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor (read I can't recall either of them personally ever bashing George W.) and like them both as actors. I think doing this movie was a nice stretch for them both in terms of getting beyond their respective normal comfort zones.

All of the above said, I just recently picked up a copy of a remastered Seven Brides For Seven Brothers starring Howard Keel (Broadway Star in shows like Kismet, as well as Dallas' Clayton Farlow.)This had been one of the first non-cartoon movies my parents took me to see that I can remember. I recommend it to those who like musicals, but may never have seen it.

Individualist said...

"I don't see Christian's character as interested at all in the Duke or his money. He only wants Satine."

Well maybe I am misremembering the story but I thought that he agreed to allow her to pretend to marry the Duke and stay hidden because his play would be put on.

I guess what I don't like is the the moral highground is given to these two who "Lie" to the "Duke". The "Duke" is evil with his reactions at the end and this is probably so though it seems a huge personality change. However one thing you can say for the Duke is he is the only one to have been Honest about who he was.

I am sorry I just did not like the protaganists I guess. But I see your point. To me that just makes Christian a dupe as well.

However your insights on the movie are correct. This is the standard form for these stories. I guess my problem is I am always going around trying to break the molds. I have to think about it. Maybe their were nuances I missed.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks Jed, I'm glad you enjoy my reviews. I'm enjoying doing them. I'm particularly enjoying trying to find angles that you won't see discussed in regular reviews.

Moulin Rouge is without a doubt one of the more visually stunning movies produced in decades. And for that, it deserves a lot of credit. I am totally a fan of bright colors, strong contrasts, and richly layered scenes. I don't mind if you have to see a movie a second or third time to pick up everything going on in the background.

In terms of music, as I said, several of the musical numbers are brilliant. That's why I think with a few simple edits, this could have been a great movie.

Interestingly, MR was the first musical nominated for best picture in 22 years. More interesting, none of the songs could be nominated for awards because none of them were considered original works.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, You're right that Christian does "go with the flow", but I think that is necessary to get the "love will conquer all" theme in place. If they just ran away once they fell in love, there wouldn't be a story.

Moreover, I think Christian goes along not to get his play done, but because he hasn't "won" Satine yet and he wants to stay in the game.

And in fact, when it becomes clear that they are both in love -- the song "Come What May" -- they both decide to run away together, even though they have no money and no financial prospects. But as they are packing, Zidler reminds Satine that she is sick and dying, and he tells her that the Duke intends to kill Christian, so she must abandon him.

And when she does, Christian initially leaves (with no thought to his play) until his broken heart/anger draws him back for one last goodbye.

Regarding the morality, I sort of agree with you that the protagonists are not particularly moral. But that's not uncommon in drama -- particularly in Opera. But more importantly, I think the movie skirts all of the morality issues to drive home its one theme -- love will conquer all, and adjusts each of the other characters to make it obvious to the viewer what emotions they should feel for each character. I don't think Luhrmann intended the viewer to ask the kinds of questions you are asking.

CrisD said...

You know, I have to pipe in here a bit on "the morals" question as well as the "suspension of belief."
"My Fair Lady" was really a quite immoral musical. I was taken to it in elementary school and really had no idea that they were going to live together and not get married (sorry, spoiler ha-ha)
Also, in MFL Shaw had to give alternate endings to the play (Pygmalion) because the play was such a ludicrous proposition.
These are things one has to accept in musicals (or skip it, I guess.)
Anyway, your review was fun and I enjoyed people's comments.

dcalleykat said...

Andrew, I totally enjoyed reading this review! I loved MR on several levels but was left feeling somehow letdown. To this day I don't think I would have been able to express exactly why, then I read your review and the light bulbs (stage ones of course) went off! Thank you so much.

AndrewPrice said...

Cris D,

I'm glad you enjoyed it. And I agree, the comments are interesting. I fully encourage everyone to leave a comment because it just adds to the discussion.

I agree about My Fair Lady (and musicals in general). Usually, it's the darker side of humanity that make for better stories, so I think it's just natural that we will find more stories on that end of the morality spectrum.

On MFL specifically, think about the utter lack of morality of Higgins, who wants to bring this woman in to see what he can do to reshape her, and then he plans to just toss her back out -- a plot idea that Trading Spaces turned around so brilliantly. That's actually quite nasty in my opinion.

AndrewPrice said...

dcalleykat, You're welcome and thanks for commenting! :-)

When I decided to start doing these, I decided that I would try to offer something other than what you can find in normal reviews. That's what got me thinking about Mouling Rouge.

I have always liked Mouling Rouge a lot, but I also always felt that I SHOULD have liked it more than I did. That's what got me wondering what kept me from really liking it. These were my conclusions.

I'm glad you liked it and hopefully you will find it useful in re-evaluating the film. Maybe knowing the problem makes it easier to focus on the good parts?

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