HOW FITTING THAT the first attraction at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival would be set, as one of its characters gleefully reports, "where the rich and powerful come to play with the young and beautiful of the underworld."
According to this $60 million Cannes opener, titled Moulin Rouge, it's artists who populate the "underworld," tossing breadcrumbs to us lowly consumers who live and breathe in environs even farther below notice. But who are the overlords governing the goings-on at the glitziest film event known to man? Well, the "Power List" in the current issue of Premiere gives top billing to megaconglomerate superstars Sumner Redstone (Viacom), Gerald Levin (Time Warner), and Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.)--the last of whom controls 20th Century Fox, and thus Moulin Rouge. True, the acknowledged director is Baz Luhrmann, the auteur who was kind enough to share credit with the Bard on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. But, to the French or anyone, this is nothing if not un film de Monsieur Murdoch.
Like Cannes itself, Moulin Rouge is one big, glittering billboard touting who owns what. Where, in most Hollywood musicals, the characters sing their innermost thoughts to one another, here the "underworld" playmakers of Paris circa 1900 communicate in anachronistic song samples of licensed material--the only context in which one could imagine David Bowie's "Heroes" mixing with Phil Collins's "One More Night." In an early workshop for Spectacular Spectacular, the aptly nondescript epic within Murdoch's epic, the stage show's writer (Ewan McGregor) hits on an inspired lyric: "The hills are alive/With the sound of music." Lucky for him (or Murdoch), the tune comes from a movie that's owned by Fox. The Spectacular star, Satine, whom Nicole Kidman plays as a liberated but fragile sexpot (wonder who has the copyright on that?), is introduced as she's being lowered on a swing set into the film's titular club, crooning "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"--from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also owned by Fox. (An honorary spot on next year's Cannes jury goes to whoever can guess what multinational communications conglomerate will be issuing the soundtrack.) Amid the endless glut of sound bites in Moulin Rouge, we're at least spared the indignity of hearing clips from Luhrmann's own Top 40 hit "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)." Maybe even Murdoch had the good taste not to scoop that one up.
To promote this purportedly daring exercise in postmodern cinema-as-corporate-jukebox, Fox publicists have already sought to court the cinema-studies crowd, proposing stateside screenings for film-department folks and the like. But mainly Moulin Rouge begs discussion in an intellectual-property seminar at UCLA's law school. Does a mere five-second snippet of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," sung by the writer to Kidman's courtesan, constitute fair use, or would Murdoch's News Corp. need to contact McCartney's Apple Corp.? (Or does Michael Jackson still own the Fab Four's back catalog?) And since "I Will Always Love You" appears both in The Bodyguard and on several Dolly Parton records, would the licensing need to be cleared with Warner Bros. or RCA? At least the party was easy to find on Cannes's Pantiero, a stretch of beach that held a 25-foot-tall, neon-lighted re-creation of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, complete with windmill. (Twin Cities audiences can follow the slightly less glamorous marquee to the local multiplex when Fox releases the film on June 1.)
Even more impressively dizzying than its own musical-on-mushrooms mise en scène, Moulin Rouge is an elaborate infotainment hall of mirrors that incorporates everything--not just Orphean myth and turn-of-the-last-century Parisian politics but the imminent writers' strike, Kidman's personal life, and McGregor's "enormous talent"--into its text. ("There may come a time when a lass needs a lawyer," sings Kidman's Satine, who could certainly find one in Cannes.) So, too, the movie wraps all of Cannes's longstanding contradictions into one ostentatious package: It's a star-driven blockbuster with the vague semblance of high art; and, in a year when the festival's acknowledged mandate is to cater to Hollywood (enough of those downbeat Marxist neorealist award winners), it's an American studio blockbuster--but set in good ol' Gay Paree. And at a time in film history when actual celluloid is as endangered as original music in a musical, Moulin Rouge's MP3-swapping aesthetic bodes well for the fully digital cinema of the future, when beleaguered celebs like Nicole Kidman won't even need to show up on the set to make their movies. Rather, they'll be stored on the hard drives of corporate super conductors such as Murdoch, and double-clicked to duet with other virtual stars for a song. Now that's entertainment.