The first time naive would-be bohemian Christian (Ewan McGregor) visits the Parisian cabaret called the Moulin Rouge in 1899, the doors fly open to a color wheel of flashing skirts: an army of crouching-tiger cancan dancers purring "Lady Marmalade." Voulez-vous fuck with me tonight? They're met by a smart phalanx of gesturing men in tuxes--black and white referees spouting, unbelievably, Here we are now/Entertain us! Kurt Cobain's words so flummoxed me in this glittery context that I didn't catch whether the chorus continued, as in "Smells Like Teen Spirit": I feel stupid/And contagious. But that's what I felt like watching Baz Luhrmann's visual and auditory onslaught of a musical, Moulin Rouge: struck dumb, and a little nauseated. Did I like it? I don't know.
Luhrmann's movie paints a wrinkled old story with so many jarringly juxtaposed movie and pop-music references that, for long stretches, the viewer is dazzled by invention. Who would think to compose a 19th-century seduction scene entirely of spoken 20th-century pop-song quotes, even "All you need is love"? Who would steal at once from Camille and Velvet Goldmine, The City of Lost Children and The Children of Paradise? Well, anybody with a spongelike brain who consumes pop culture mightily--i.e., any one of a lot of us. My own head is a databank of lyrics and melodies that retrieve themselves at the tiniest external trigger. Moulin Rouge recognizes me in its farcical associating frenzy; I couldn't help but laugh back.
But there's a difference between bringing disparate things together to create something new and quoting just to relax and stupefy your audience. Luhrmann can do the former--his Miami-colored William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was wondrously silly, I thought. But here he is often hampered by a story less sturdy, if equally worn--and one rather more self-serving. It's the tale of art versus commerce, as enacted via a love triangle between a "revolutionary" writer (McGregor), the courtesan and actress Satine (Nicole Kidman), and the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who is paying for their show. As the muse of both men, Satine represents passion, beauty, the "spirit" of art. Will she choose artistic integrity or the compromise of the market? Will she and the show they're creating (and this movie, for that matter) prostitute themselves for mass success? I know, I know--you're yawning. I was, too.
It doesn't help that this dumbed-down conflict is entangled with Satine's three-for-one stereotype bargain: goodhearted whore, ambitious woman embracing love over career, and dying martyr (I'm giving nothing away that the first minute of the movie doesn't). As a friend noted, does it matter what Satine chooses by the time she's dead? It matters only to the men--the Duke, Christian, Luhrmann--who want to own her or put words in her mouth or use her to inspire their creative enterprises. Kidman throws herself bodily into Satine, and she is funny and beautiful. But is there a character to play who is not playing a part? Early on, Satine says to Christian: "I'm paid to make men believe what they want to believe." That's so true, it undermines the entire plot.
Or exposes it. The film seems to place itself on the side of the boho angels, mocking the campily attentuated Duke and his brutal equations of greed and power. But the writer-director is taking no revolutionary risks with his message. He would make viewers believe what they want to believe: that love (of moviemaking) is everything, that business doesn't influence his art. That's his job. Meanwhile, as City Pages' Rob Nelson wrote in his Cannes report on Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann gives it up for his money man, 20th Century Fox's Rupert Murdoch, by referencing such Fox properties as The Sound of Music and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and by providing the conglomerate with crossover product: a hit musical soundtrack. He even includes the Fox logo within the film's theater-curtain framing device--just another product placement.
I called Satine an empty stereotype. Of course, Christian and the Duke are, as well. No artist who seeks to communicate is exempt from the business of selling her- or himself. To claim boho purity is to obscure the material relations that manipulate all of us, that we in turn try to manipulate. Neither are the world's money men necessarily evil, or clumsy, or stupid. (Especially not the last two.) Artmaking and the political and economic system surrounding it are intertwined in a lovers' knot too tight for even skinny Kidman to slip inside. That's why the funniest and truest scene in Moulin Rouge is a flashy production of "Like a Virgin" featuring grizzled theater director Harold Zidler (Topsy Turvy's Jim Broadbent draped in a white bedspread) seducing the shy-then-vampiric Duke.
The second-coolest scene is a tango version of the Police's "Roxanne" involving the various theater extras and a performer (Jacek Koman) known only as the "Argentinean." (To have dark skin in this Moulin Rouge is to be an exotic right up there with the dancing dwarves--true enough historically, perhaps, but Luhrmann is not exactly obsessed with authenticity.) Intended or no, this wearily frank tango accepts the prostitution of all concerned--and is the more moving for it.
Indeed, as much as McGregor and Kidman labor exhaustively (singing! dancing! emoting!), the film's most transporting moments are ensemble pieces that play off Broadbent's sly pomposity, say, or Roxburgh's exaggerated priggishness, or the capering whine of John Leguizamo's Toulouse-Lautrec. The actors come together with the zapping song quotes, jerky jump cuts, arch gestures, and sparkling animation, and sometimes something startlingly delightful happens.
It's not just that these moments provide distraction, although I was happily distracted from the tediously meaningful love triangle. And it's not just that they're sugar to make the pill of a message go down. Somehow, occasionally, in the far margins of Luhrmann's stock plot ($20 a share and rising), cinema re-creates its irreverence, its magic. (As if for the very first time.) Don't let Murdoch or Luhrmann tell you different: The spirit of art is not some fragile, consumptive beauty. It is incorrigible. So pile on the exploding candles and candy sprinkles, director. Your cake is so stale it makes me sick--but oh, the frosting...