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May 11, 2001 2:00 AM
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CANNES REVIEW: Drowning at the "Moulin Rouge"; Luhrmann's Spectacle Spasms

CANNES REVIEW: Drowning at the "Moulin Rouge"; Luhrmann's Spectacle Spasms

by Patrick Z. McGavin




(indieWIRE/05.11.01) -- Except for possibly Ridley Scott, there is not another active filmmaker whose work wields shamelessness and emotional manipulation in such an aggressively ecstatic manner as Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. His work seems founded on a desperate need for acceptance beyond art, beyond sensual gratification, into something pure and beautiful.


With each successive movie ("Strictly Ballroom," "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet"), Luhrmann is avid to prove how brazen, daring and dazzling his reach extends. For better and (a lot) worse, the director's third feature, "Moulin Rouge," a monstrously inflated, over-hyped movie -- the opening film of the 54th Cannes International Film festival -- marks the fullest expression of his sensibility. Luhrmann no doubt believes it is revolutionary and groundbreaking. I find it the death of aesthetics.


"Moulin Rouge" is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies, a movie boldly conceived, though bleakly executed. It rummages through the gorgeous history of film (Howard Hawks's "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds"), video (Madonna's "Like a Virgin"), and pop art (Elton John's "Your Song") to shape the musical numbers, though the greater formal and narrative dexterity -- emotion as movement, music as character -- that galvanized the musicals of Vincente Minnelli, Jacques Demy and Stanley Donen is completely absent here. The movie never achieves any lift, any buoyancy. It succeeds only as an airless spectacle, one moored to the ground, claustrophobic and emotionally detached. It begins horribly (except for the inventive title credits), and it never really recovers.


Luhrmann has a striking affinity for imagery, but he lacks the corollary feel for tempo, spatial coherence, line, composition and movement, that give the images any depth of meaning or emotional resonance. In the movie's opening twenty minutes, the succession of imagery is so overwhelming, Luhrmann never allows a single shot, much less image, to coalesce in our collective consciousness. The story is related in flashback by the martyred writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), a talented, ambitious artist who quickly succumbs to the irrational, powerful hold of the bohemian revolution taking flight at the Paris night club, the Moulin Rouge, at the turn of the 20th century.


The movie is a spasm of grief invoking the magnetic and beguiling courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), whose devastating beauty and allure creates a tense struggle between the writer and the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh). Worcester is the gilded aristocrat who is the sole investor of "Spectacular Spectacular," the epic musical revue Christian has been enlisted to write by Toulouse Lautrec (a badly under-utilized John Leguizamo). The great Mike Leigh regular Jim Broadbent is the club's deft impresario, Zidler.


Kidman makes a startling entrance, literally descending from the sky on a trapeze. The moment turns her into a supreme fetish object -- her sharp, angular features evoking a profound, anguished sense of longing and rapture. But in one of the few moments that register any meaning, Kidman held aloft by a group of ravenous men, Luhrmann breaks away, shattering our hold and imagination. It underlines the movie's great structural weakness, that Luhrmann does not really have faith in the emotional, sexual and physical consequences of the material.


"We're creatures of the underworld. We cannot afford to love," Zidler says. Satine is even more direct when Christian unfurls his absolute devotion to her. "I'm paid to make men believe what they want to believe," she says. But the more complicated emotional range is increasingly crowded out by the overwrought visual design.


The innovative production and costume designs of Lurhmann collaborator Catherine Martin and the sharp visual grace of cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine ("Romeo + Juliet") cannot be dismissed, though Luhrmann's frantic, hyper style turns a great deal of what is seen into the exaggerated and grotesque. Like Minnelli's sublime 1953 "The Band Wagon," "Moulin Rouge" is studded with references to the filmmakers and actors themselves. The movie turns into an extended meditation on what it means to be an artist in Hollywood -- the compromises, the regret, the humiliation -- in the pursuit of art and personal expression. But here, the idiom is the message. How it is said is more important than what is being said. It is a shriek, a cry, for recognition and applause. By its conclusion, "Moulin Rouge" drowns in its own spectacle.

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