Big. Splashy. Campy. Kitschy. Surreal. Color-drunk. Tune-crazy. There are any number of descriptive tags that could be accurately applied to Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, whether or not you end up liking this big-budget attempt to reinvent the movie musical. But there's another adjective that's as unavoidable as it is perplexingly ambivalent in its implications: postmodern.
Can't some daring and ingenious filmmaker figure out a way simply to resuscitate the musical? To mount a big, splashy, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" equivalent of the old Judy Garland or Gene Kelly melodious fantasy, complete with innocence, sincerity and an open-hearted lack of irony? Apparently not. Of course, the old-fashioned musical does live on in one closely-guarded precinct. In recent years, Disney animated features such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King have given the genre a safe haven of sorts. Which is fine if you're a songwriter or a cartoon in need of work. But what if you're a musical fan who would prefer the real, nonanimated thing?
In that case, times are tough, because the musical seems to attract only high-flying artificers determined to reinvent the form from the vantage point of a cheeky, self-regarding, ferociously ironic knowingness. The last postmodern princeling to gallop down this road was of course Lars Von Trier. Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark and Moulin Rouge might properly be regarded as kissing cousins; despite many affinities, though, they are by no means identical twins either in genealogy or appearance. Von Trier, a Dane, set his movie in contemporary redneck America but shot it in Europe using mainly European actors. Luhrmann, an Aussie, set his tale in fin-de-sicle Europe and shot it mostly in Sydney, with an Antipodean-gone-Hollywood (Nicole Kidman) in the lead.
Dancer in the Dark was filmed (so to speak) on no-frills video, looks grungy and features an original and rather catchy Europop song score. Moulin Rouge was shot using the gaudiest of celluloid palettes, looks almost psychedelically splendiferous, and, instead of original songs, recycles past pop hits such as Elton John's "Your Song"--a move that may have been inspired by a similar use of classic-rock chestnuts in Von Trier's Breaking the Waves.
These numerous differences notwithstanding, Dancer in the Dark and Moulin Rouge share a fundamental attribute. They are auteur films with a vengeance and therefore almost directly antithetical to classic Hollywood musicals, which were manufactured under a system where the studio and its bosses made most of the creative decisions, the genre's cheesy formulas were not to be trifled with or sneered at, and the director was more a glorified traffic cop than an artiste.
Why have the likes of Von Trier and Luhrmann decided to recast this convention-bound and moribund genre in their own images? My guess, as suggested in my review of Dancer, is that for many non-Americans, the musical, more than any other genre, represents the Hollywood studio system's--and thus, by extension, the movies'--magic at its most primal and potent, a place where intelligence and innocence were almost alchemically fused and extravagant displays of personality happened without the evident intrusion of ego, as if by communal will or divine fiat. For anyone whose love of cinema stems from an awareness of its past glories, the musical symbolizes what seems most fragile, evanescent and irrecoverable about the medium. A Lost Eden, so to speak.
Such a view was manifest as early as the French New Wave, and the modernism of that era brought us such simultaneously innovative and entrancing films as Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which both respected and refashioned the musical's delicate formulas. That tricky balancing act was natural to a film-smart transitional era; modernism, as others have remarked, frequently looks like a latter-day equivalent of neoclassicism. Postmodernism, on the other hand, too often acts like the redheaded stepchild known as decadence. Its ethos of deconstruction and private pleasure teeters constantly on an unresolvable dilemma: whether to recognize the past's pull by mining it or mocking it.
Ultimately, most mass-market movies that start out from such a position are already way too cerebral in the way they approach their tasks, and end up as both Dancer and Moulin Rouge do: interesting but unsatisfying, more engaging to read about than to sit through. Of course, there are audiences to be found for both kinds of revisionist whimsy (Dancer appeals to self-styled hipsters in roughly the same way that Moulin Rouge does to an odd alliance of teenage girls and gay men), but their crossover dreams are almost surely doomed by the fact that most of the culture never bought into the musical's magic enough to feel betrayed when it evaporated. Indeed, where Luhrmann and Von Trier both mockingly/enviously cite The Sound of Music, Hollywood has yet to wake up to the reality that most moviegoers would rather see a (non-ironic) re-release of that Robert Wise classic than the recent, overhyped "singalong" version that attempted to turn it into a Rocky Horror clone. Postmodernism, it seems, has yet to conquer the average movie fan.
Does it matter? For Moulin Rouge's chances in the United States, it undoubtedly does. Luhrmann has not attempted to make anything like a real, old-fashioned musical, which involves a fully developed fictional world that bears at least a fancifully compelling relation to our own. Rather, Moulin Rouge takes place in a wacky, carnival-funhouse vision of Paris a century back, a lavish (and in part, digitally created) dreamland centered on fabricated versions of Montmartre and the famous windmill-bedecked Moulin Rouge nightclub. This phantasmagorical version of la vie de Boheme, needless to say, doesn't evoke even romanticized renditions of historical fact; mounted with a loony, ant-farm intricacy that recalls the films of French directors Jeunet and Caro (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children), the setting is a cartoon fantasyburg that glories in its own ersatz, movie-set gaudiness.
The story, meanwhile, is the sheerest clothesline along which Luhrmann strings his giddy conceits. Christian (Ewan McGregor), a bright-eyed young writer who's come to Montmartre to pursue Art's ideals of "truth, beauty and love," falls in love with Moulin Rouge's leading chanteuse, Satine (Kidman). After the prescribed amount of dithering, she returns his affections, but there are, of course, obstacles to happiness-ever-after. Satine is under the thumb of the nightclub's oily impresario (Jim Broadbent in a hilariously overcooked turn), who in turn faces mounting pressure to render her favors unto a rich aristocrat (Richard Roxburgh). The point of all this very creaky and clichéd contrivance, naturally, is to give the protagonists reason to gaze longingly at each other and burst into song, which they do at dependable intervals.
The unspoken objective of the classic musical was to press its fakery until it yielded real emotion. Cynical and superior, the postmodern version assumes that fake is real, and, concomitantly, that all emotion is fake, i.e., it results from mechanistic psychological button-pushing rather than inherently human responses to ideals such as "truth, beauty and love."
You don't have to muse long to realize that, especially in the realm of mass entertainment, the postmodernist position is bound to run aground on its own internal contradictions. For Luhrmann, however, the real problem isn't intellectual consistency; it's basic ability. Put simply, he doesn't have the chops to make Moulin Rouge work even on its own terms. His story creaks and wheezes far more than it needs to--there are too many passages that feel like mere filler; bring a snooze-alarm. And the characters, despite McGregor's solid singing and frisky-puppy appeal and Kidman's game earnestness, are self-disclosing "constructs" with little of interest to disclose.
However, as in Luhrmann's last film, the equally overdetermined and underrealized William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, the biggest failings here are stylistic. Because Luhrmann's visual sense is basically that of your average music video director, he knows a lot about flashy sets and eye-grabbing compositions, and precious little about the sculpture of human and camera choreography or editing dynamics. In a word, his stylistic attack is amateurish; for all the money lavished on the film, it still feels like the creation of a recent film school grad who's trying to prove he can handle big TV commercials--and if that were an exam, Luhrmann would barely get passing marks.
Most grating of all to some viewers, though, will be the film's appropriation of old pop-rock tunes for its score. Ranging from The Police's "Roxanne" to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," these packages of borrowed emotion collectively add up to what's perhaps the only authentic act in postmodern aesthetics: flattering the viewer's pop-culture knowingness. I'll admit there's fun to be had in this; in one mid-film medley that Kidman and McGregor trill against the rooftops of fake-Paree, Moulin Rouge actually achieves the kind of dizzingly kaleidoscopic musical referentiality and sheer joy-in-performance that obviously were its main raison d'etre.
But the other side of this pleasurable pop pastiche is the unavoidable realization that new songwriting is not only being avoided but derided. And that only adds to the impression that Luhrmann's real attitude toward the musical (as well as toward his audience, and perhaps his own talents, too) is not love, but contempt.