Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.

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Moulin Rouge!

Film #247

THE PLOT

A poet falls for a beautiful courtesan whom a jealous duke covets in this stylish musical, with music drawn from familiar 20th century sources.

Year 1, Day 248

BEFORE: Another double-feature day today that will get me back on par with days/movies. Both films today were originally scheduled for the romance chain in the beginning of February starting with Moulin Rouge!. Expectations are extremely low going into this film as it is: (a) a musical; and (b) directed by Baz Luhrmann - who is responsible for the abomination that is Romeo + Juliet. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture so evidently some people like it; I wonder if I’ll be one of them.

AFTER: Turns out, Moulin Rouge! wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be. It still isn’t what I would call a great film but both the story and music, yes the music, I found to be well done and entertaining. What I didn’t like, and is probably why I was so against the film coming in, was the stylistic choices Baz Luhrmann makes.

Given my recent track record with musicals, I think it might be fair to say I’m adapting and beginning to appreciate the genre for what it is. Or it might be I’m just picking the best musicals that fit my tastes. Either way, Moulin Rouge! had some great music in it. At the beginning I was very appalled: not at the incorporation of the singing (it’s set in theater with an actress and a poetic writer) but by the choice to feature popular and more modern songs (compared to the setting of 1900) such as “All You Need Is Love”, “Silly Love Songs”, and “Roxanne”. However, not far into the film, this opposition to the music choice faded away and I accepted it as part of the film and meaningful to the story the filmmakers were trying to tell. The story revolves around the central line spoken quite frequently throughout the film, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Like so many films (just look back a couple weeks to the romance chain in February) it’s a story about love between two characters, in this case Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman), and the obstacles they must overcome. What I enjoyed so much about Moulin Rouge! is that they were adapting their own story into the play they were producing and when combined with the character of the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), it made for an interesting spin that kept it feeling fresh.

Now onto the style of the film which I really could not stand. My complaints with Luhrmann’s style falls in three categories: editing, use of retiming (slow/fast motion), and the transitions. All three of these areas are quite similar but I’ll do my best to distinguish between them to accurately portray my feelings. The best way to describe the editing would be as Ebert does when he says all the cuts make the film, “seem to have been fed through electric fans.” Quite often, during the musical numbers especially, it will be image after image just a handful of frames long so all you’re left with is flashes; bits of actions. Ebert thinks this works and says,

For Luhrmann and this material, it is the right approach. He uses so many different setups and camera angles that some of the songs seem to be cut not on every word of the lyrics, but on every syllable. There’s no breathing room… Everything is screwed to a breakneck pitch, as if the characters have died and their lives are flashing before our eyes.

While I never thought about the editing of Moulin Rouge! providing us a way to see “their lives flashing before our eyes”, I still don’t agree that it works well and that leads into the other two categories: retiming and transitions. The slow-motions shots (and the handful of fast-motion shots) are: (a) too frequent; and (b) feel forced. Slow (or fast) motion shots can be very effective at calling attention to a specific action or an emotion that a character is feeling in a certain moment, giving more time on screen to emphasize what is going on. But when you have a slow-motion shot in almost every other scene, the emphasis begins to wear off and you’re just left wondering, “Why do we need to be seeing this extra slowly?” Plus the effect feels forced; as if the shots are being slowed down (or sped up) to fill a gap in the film and match the soundtrack rather than a planned ahead, shot in slow-motion, shot that was specifically designed to fill a purpose. And very briefly, the transitions. There’s a lot of back and forth between the Moulin Rouge, Christian’s hotel, and the large view of Paris. Instead of using a typical approach and throwing some b-roll in, Luhrmann goes for a continuous look moving the camera between sets (through visual effects). It’s very interesting and I commend the experimentation with transitions, but I felt it was too much and added a feeling of falseness. An example that comes to mind is the later Harry Potter films (think: going through the glass of the clock tower out onto the courtyard). The same idea is used here - move the camera from scene to scene instead of cutting - but it is used much more sparingly and feels natural. In Moulin Rouge! there’s a jumpiness to it, a little hint that tells you something isn’t right about the transition and ruins the effect.

Overall I was very impressed and shocked by Moulin Rouge!. Expectations were low and the film certainly delivered above what I was expecting. The story was a bit routine but had some unique elements to make it worthwhile and the music also added to the entertainment value. But the same can not be said for the style, particularly the editing, which did meet my expectations (read: bad). Recommendation-wise, I’d say there’s enough good here to be worth two hours of your time and if you do like the style, well you’ll probably find it to be more than worth your time.

RATING: 3 out of 5