The hills are alive with the sound of music in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, and that includes "The hills are alive with the sound of music," one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of lyrics that have been sliced, diced and spliced into this musical to end all musicals. A period piece set in the famous club where fin de siecle Paris used to kick up its heels, Moulin Rouge draws on all the subsequent periods while asking the musical question, "Just how much will an audience take?" It's a nothing-exceeds-like-excess movie, a hallucinatory ode to l'amour fou in which nobody's more crazily in love than Luhrmann, who seems to have fallen for every idea that ever drifted into his pretty little head. Luhrmann doesn't just want us to admire this movie, he wants us to stand on our rooftops, throw our hats in the air and shout, "Ooh-la-la!"
Well, all I can say is, hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen. For though Moulin Rouge has its moments, that may be all it has, moments. And the moments are all the same size: enormous. The movie opens with an operatic fanfare and doesn't let up for over two hours, our eyes and ears subjected to a montage-barrage of colorful noise. No sooner has one character gotten through singing about the inevitability of love than another character starts singing about the impossibility of love, after which they both sing about the inevitable impossibility, the impossible inevitability of love. And Luhrmann sets the movie traveling at nearly the speed of light, the shot rhythms anticipating the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine guns that would bring La Belle Epoque to a close in the muddy trenches of World War I. A postmodern musical about the advent of modernity, Moulin Rouge blows itself to smithereens.
There is a story, although it appears to have been lifted from that wonderful old bucket of tears, Camille. Like Greta Garbo, Nicole Kidman plays a consumptive courtesan who must choose between the aristocrat who can give her everything she's ever wanted and the commoner (Ewan McGregor) who can only give her his love. Of course, she chooses love...sort of. Kidman, who has an icy beauty not unlike Garbo's ' upturned nose, high cheekbones ' doesn't exactly radiate "I vant to be alone." No, she wants to be a sex kitten Ã la Ann-Margret, and her entrance in Moulin Rouge, descending from the heavens on a swing, is indeed entrancing. Kidman more than holds her own in this curiously demanding role, negotiating the leaps from high tragedy to low comedy as if she were born in a music hall. And her singing, though rarely more than adequate, does hit the emotional notes Luhrmann seems to be after.
But what are those emotional notes, exactly? After Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge completes what Luhrmann is now calling his "Red Curtain Trilogy," the name referring to the heightened theatricality of the worlds he sets his stories in. Personally, I don't think Strictly Ballroom makes the cut; its theatricality wasn't all that heightened. But Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge do seem to inhabit their own little segments of the space-time continuum ' pop-culture landscapes consisting of mostly air and floating signifiers. Cole Porter, Dolly Parton and Kurt Cobain all find a place in Luhrmann's merry medleys, where anything goes and nothing comes to much. The effect, alas, is both involving and distancing, each moment disappearing into the next, the whole thing registering as a cinematic acid trip.
This may be what Luhrmann is after. He wants to capture the spirit of the Moulin Rouge in its heyday, when the can-can dancers were showing the underworld their underwear, the prostitutes were spreading their beneficence over a grateful clientele and absinthe made the heart grow fonder. For the club scenes, Luhrmann adopts the color scheme used by Toulouse-Lautrec in his famous posters ' the lipstick reds, the inky blacks, the phosphorescent greens and yellows. And wouldn't you know it, Toulouse-Lautrec makes an appearance in the form of John Leguizamo, who seems to have sacrificed half his height and all his marbles to play the role. As with the rest of the supporting cast, Leguizamo's performance is cut to shreds by Luhrmann's Cuisinart approach to editing. Although I didn't have a stopwatch with me, I'd be surprised if the movie's average shot length were much more than a second or two.
Somehow, Ewan McGregor cuts through those cubistic shards and leaves an impression on us. He's playing an idealistic poet named Christian, for crissakes, and I did get rather tired of him warbling the word "love" at the top of his lungs, but they're ample lungs indeed. And McGregor obviously decided to just fling himself at the role and see whether he was still standing when the smoke cleared. He is, but the movie itself joins a couple of other recent movie musicals that have gone down in flames: Velvet Goldmine and Dancer in the Dark. Just as MTV killed the radio stars, it appears to have dealt a major blow to the musical, which is no longer content to wear its heart on its sleeve but now must first inject a hypodermic needle in its heart, then wear it on its sleeve. Arousing only in spurts, Moulin Rouge has a prostitute's way of promising much more than it delivers. Which is why, the next time I want to "go where the underworld can meet the elite," I'll return to 42nd Street.