I know, this is riskier. People love this movie with an obsessive ferocity that has nothing to do with teenage nostalgia. Still, I have thoughts and lj pretty much exists to grant me the narcissistic illusion that spouting said thoughts is worthwhile, so here we go.
I'll begin by saying that Moulin Rouge is absolutely beautiful. This is a movie for which style was a priority over substance, and as a result nearly every still from the movie could be a poster. Every costume and set has had great attention to detail paid to make everything look just so. There's not a whole lot of historical accuracy in anything, but I think to be bothered by that is, in the case of this movie, both petty and missing the point. I mean, if you're a stickler for historical accuracy in all things, this is a movie you should stay far, far away from. (Ok, Hollywood movies in general aren't so great for historical accuracy, but this one doesn't even try, because in what they're trying to do, pretty is so much more important than accurate.)
The movie starts with a voiceover from an angsty and moodily lit Ewan McGregor, who as a writer is typing out the story of the movie in between tears and shots of bourbon.
Personally, I can't see a bearded McGregor without thinking "OBI-WAN" but that's a personal thing and has nothing really to do with the movie, especially because about two minutes into the movie we move into the flashback (ie: the entire movie) and both the beard and the angst vanishes magically.
The next scene gives some major mood whiplash, since we find ourselves suddenly in a colourful, frantically-paced scene with the tone of a farce. Forget the whiny dude who opened the movie, narcolepsy is funny! A man dressed as a nun is funny! Accidentally crashing through ceilings and recruiting the first person you see into your theatrical attempts is funny!
Which brings me to one of my biggest issues with the movie. It's not that these things can't be funny, it's that the schizophrenic flip-flipping leaves me unsettled. Yes, it's possible to be dramatic and comedic at the same time, and dramedy is one of my absolute favourite genres, but it's very very difficult to do well. Even Joss Whedon, master of the dramedy and someone who manages to zip from one mood to another doesn't attempt to head into farce territory. In the Whedonverse, the situations aren't funny but the characters are. The dialogue is smart and funny because the characters are smart and funny, finding something to laugh at (usually themselves) in the face of tense situations.
In Moulin Rouge, the characters aren't particularly smart. They're placed in absurd situations that then become funny, but not one of them realizes it. They're all just as earnest in the farcical scenes as they are in the dramatic ones, and while having the characters fail to realize they're in a comedy can work, I find it problematic in this case, largely because it's hard for me to take the dramatic scenes seriously when they're treated in the same way the funny ones are. All the flip-flopping makes me feel like the movie just couldn't decide what it wanted to be.
So upon realizing their collective creative brilliance, Christian (McGregor) and his new buddies get high on absinthe and head to the theatre, the sexy Moulin Rouge. And here we have our first real musical number (if you don't count Christian writing The Sound of Music on the spot). The scene is big and colourful and decadent and full of all kinds of sexy --hey, wait a minute, are they doing a cover of Nirvana?
Ok, I know I said historical accuracy is the first thing out the window and in the context of this movie that's ok with me, but the music messes me up. First of all, dude, you put Smells Like Teen Spirit in a musical. Regardless of the type of musical, that's an... interesting choice. Secondly, can-can dancers grooving to electric guitars is more than an anachronism, it's a crazy dissonance that hurts my brain. Look, I'm not saying you can't do modern songs, but while you're doing covers, why not go that extra step and put totally different instruments in there? I could go with a big horn section to replace the guitars, something that would take the modern song and give it an older sound.
Which is not to say the music is bad by any stretch of the imagination. I really love their rendition of Roxanne in all its gravel-voiced passion and even prefer it to the original (sorry, Sting). Everyone cast in the movie can sing (which is not necessarily true of all musicals) and every musical number is lush and gorgeously staged. Once again, this is a very pretty movie. As soundtracks go, this is a pretty solid one, but sometimes the visuals don't jibe with the music and my brain says "uhh, wut?"
And all this brings us to Nicole Kidman's entrance.
Kudos to the filmmakers for establishing her illness in the very first scene she appears in. It does create another whiplash moment, though, since Satine comes out, does her sequin-studded musical number, and proceeds to mistake the penniless Christian for the wealthy duke she's meant to persuade to invest in the theatre. Hey, it's a mistaken identity plot! Just like the basis of several Shakespearean romps! ...and then she passes out and starts coughing up blood because she's dying of tuberculosis.
The character of Satine is, well, interesting. They cast her to be beautiful with a great singing voice and then didn't give much thought to her beyond what the plot required. She could have been really strong and complex but she suffers a lot from the movie not being able to decide what it wants to be.
She's a talented singer and burlesque dancer with dreams of becoming a legitimate actress. She's also, we're told, the foremost courtesan in Paris. I suspect the writers had no idea what a courtesan is and just mean it as a sexy term for whore. Regardless of what context you're using the term, though, Satine has to be the worst courtesan ever. The initial confusion where she mistakes Christian for the Duke is understandable, but then the movie starts to sacrifice believability for what it believes will be funny. The thing is, to do what she does and to have achieved the position she has, Satine should be perceptive, intelligent, and have excellent people skills. In this movie, though, she's not and she doesn't.
When Christian tells her he wants to "read poetry" to her, that's a reasonable misunderstanding. When he starts actually reading the poetry, though, you'd think she might be able to take the hint instead of rolling around on the floor and moaning in an over-the-top show of ecstasy. That's not seductive and it's not charming, it's ridiculous.
She realizes her mistake when the real Duke shows up and afraid the Duke will hurt another man he finds visiting with the woman he's paid for, tries (rather unsuccessfully) to smuggle Christian out of the room beneath the Duke's nose.
Again, she lacks any degree of smoothness, seduction, or capability because those qualities aren't funny and we need people to laugh (for some reason).
Honestly, I'm not sure why this movie is so terrified to take itself seriously. There's the potential for interesting characters and ideas if they'd just let us laugh with the characters instead of at them.
So through some fast-talking and another musical number, the company convinces the Duke to invest in their next show. In theory, the show should have the power and now financial backing to transform Satine from something burlesque into a proper actress with a real career. In exchange for his money, the Duke is assured he has Satine's attentions.
In reality, though, it's Christian's earnestness that woos Satine and it's interesting to note that the poor and idealistic writer is much better at this whole seduction thing than the experienced courtesan. They start romancing through the rehearsal process, working on the play they sold to the Duke and which Christian is writing specifically for Satine. She avoids the Duke in her new lovesick bliss and occasionally has episodes of being horribly sick. These are infrequent enough and short enough she's able to hide them from Christian, who she's living with.
To keep the Duke from losing his patience, Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, convinces him that Satine is pouring all her energy into her new role and taking up religion to make herself "pure" again for the sake of the Duke. I'll have more to say about this later, but for now let it be said that this musical number is the most over-the-top silly thing in the movie.
Silly isn't bad, but at this point in the film it's starting to feel pretty out of place, because we're getting all sorts of drama from our main couple. Christian wants a stronger commitment from Satine, which she can't give because, well, she's a whore and her paycheque is what they're both living off of. He's also suspicious of her unexplained absences, because for some reason she's hiding from him the fact that she's sick. To be fair, she hasn't yet realized she's dying but by now I think she and Christian are the only two who don't know.
Somewhere around this point, the Duke realizes the play is a one-sided summary of the entire movie, with himself being cast as the villain. He's less than thrilled and demands the ending be changed so the wealthy stooge be the man who winds up with the girl, to Christian's outrage. Satine does some sweet-talking and agrees to dinner with the Duke, implying he'll get much more out of the evening. Her intentions are to try to convince the Duke the play doesn't have to be the way reality turns out, that she'll pick him if he allows them to do the more romantic ending where the heroine runs away with her poor but artistic suitor.
While she's away, Christian tears himself apart in a fit of jealousy and Satine realizes she can't go through with her plan of sleeping with the Duke because she's so in love with Christian. The Duke is pretty quick to figure out what's going on, becomes outraged and tries to rape Satine (which is interrupted just in the nick of time). This is probably the best scene in the movie, because for a moment they stopped trying to be so very pretty and put a whole lot of passion in there. The music is interspersed through the scene, which cuts from Christian to Satine and back again, with bits of a stage show about a cheating protitute in there. The editing, instead of being frenetic, is sympathetic and adds to the feel instead of distracting from it, and... well, you can see it for yourself. It's pretty intense.
Satine escapes and runs straight to Christian to tell him she couldn't do it. He suggests they run away together, to get away from the Moulin Rouge and start a new life somewhere they can be happy. As Satine starts packing, though, Zidler comes and tells her she's dying. To "save" Christian, she breaks things off with him and tells him he was a fling that she cares less about than she does the theatre, where she's planning to stay.
And at this point, we lose the parts of the plot that make sense in favour of what creates more drama. We've totally abandoned any attempts at comedy.
Christian shows up at the theatre during the show to confront Satine, which Zidler and the rest of the company improvise around and pretend is part of the script. Satine admits she does, in fact, still loves Christian. This display has the Duke try to shoot them WHILE THEY'RE STILL ONSTAGE but he fails epically and they finish the show.
About two seconds after the company gets offstage, Satine has another fit of consumption and promptly dies in Christian's arms. And he decides to write a musical in her honour. As you do.
So can a musical get away with a sad ending? Yes, of course. Even a funny one can do it; Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog broke my heart. It's a tricky thing to do, though, and the thing with Moulin Rouge is that at no point does it trust its audience or its characters. The whole movie is just one gimmick after another so there's no time to develop any depth.
I do understand why people like this movie. It's very entertaining! It's very pretty, with some great (and familiar) songs, and Ewan McGregor is very good with what he's been given. If you're willing to sit back and turn off your brain for a couple of hours, I can see this being great fun, right up until the point where it's trying to make you cry. Only I'm not engaged enough in these characters or their world to feel sad for them. You just can't prioritize style over substance without sacrificing some of that substance, and while Moulin Rouge tries really hard to shoehorn some deeper statement in there during the last act of the movie, the fact that it's there as an afterthought doesn't escape my notice.
But, well, people love this movie. Critics loved this movie. This movie won a crapload of awards. So maybe it's my own cynicism getting in the way, preventing me from being swept up like it seems everyone else has. Certainly there's nothing wrong with loving a movie for superficial reasons or loving it in spite of its faults. I've got a few "guilty pleasure" movies that I know aren't particularly good, but that I love in spite of that. The things is, though, this movie is lauded as something that is good, and that puzzles me. I like musicals and I like romances. I've seen several that are more solid but less respected than this one. Or possibly I'm just not the right audience for Moulin Rouge.