Moulin Rouge Review
Once in a while, a film comes along that is a genuinely revelatory experience, fulfilling a viewer’s every desire and daring to break out against the usual formulaic mould of Hollywood product. Films that throw in pointlessly ‘wacky’ incidents to be surreal are ten a penny, as are films that cynically use popular songs to sell X million copies of the soundtrack. Moulin Rouge had all the hallmarks of being an artistic failure; the director who had only made two films before, one of which was an amusing but ultimately insignificant low-budget disco comedy, and the other which was an ambitious but heavily flawed attempt at updating Shakespeare for a modern-day audience. Add to this early reports of one of the weirdest soundtracks ever assembled for a film, apparently ranging from The Sound of Music to Nirvana, and the writing appeared to be on the wall for Baz.
Of course, for many, the final film did little to assuage these fears, with the film’s detractors (of which there were many) shouting about how ‘It’s got no plot’, or ‘The cutting’s too fast’, or, most entertainingly of all ‘Ewan and Nicole can’t sing’. The last of these criticisms is perhaps the most easily addressed; unlike many musicals, the revelation here is how good the actors are at actually articulating while singing. Often, in films of this time, the songs act as little more than light relief from the action, with every set-piece number becoming nothing more than so much auditory wallpaper, as saccharine orchestration hides a legion of back up singers. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. While it would be stretching it to say that the originals are ‘respected’, given the incredible diversity of music here, the familiarity that the average audience is likely to have with 90% of the soundtrack can only help. And, yes, Ewan and Nicole can sing.
The most serious criticism, then, that has been made is that the film is little more than a shallow triumph of style over substance, with visual dynamics and fast cutting concealing a clichéd and empty tale of young (ish) love. Detractors of the film have, at first glance, a good argument here. The plot owes a great deal to several ‘traditional’ sources, ranging from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld to Shakespeare, both in the comedies and the tragedies. There are also elements of Bollywood musicals, Victorian melodrama, Greek comedy, Romantic poetry, 19th century opera and even Restoration comedy. With such an assortment of material, a critic could sneer, it is no wonder that the film ends up little more than a thing ‘of shreds and patches’, an occasionally amusing assortment of various styles that fail really to gel together.
This is certainly one way of looking at the film. However, such a view would portray Luhrmann as little more than a talentless hack, trying desperately to cover up his own lack of originality by pilfering from wherever he can. Instead, an alternate view, and a far more convincing one, is that Luhrmann completely understands and appreciates the inherent artificiality of the film, both in the setting, a deliberately studio-bound representation of fin-de-siecle Paris, and in the execution of the material. While people may burst into song at the drop of a hat in real life on occasion, it is unlikely that they would be accompanied by quite such lavish orchestration, nor by such splendid visual effects. (Incidentally, the film’s special effects are magnificent, and no less impressive for being comparatively subtle). The film is a celebration of the musical film as a generic entity, in much the same way that novels such as Ulysses and Tristram Shandy are celebrations of the novel as one of the great products of human endeavour. This isn’t the snide post-modern sneering of Austin Powers or Scream, but a genuinely extraordinary accomplishment, which succeeds as both a celebration and a representation of the musical genre.
If this sounds like so much pretentious academic posturing, it might well be, but it should not conceal another factor in the film’s success; it is enormously good fun. For the first hour, the pace is utterly breakneck, as virtually every cinematic trick in the book is used to keep the audience’s attention. Frequently, the effect is not dissimilar to watching a live-action cartoon of sorts, with the cutting, overstated sound effects and bright colours slyly emphasising the artificiality of the setting, in much the same way that the classic Tex Avery cartoons would be both self-aware and completely innocent; a constant feature of the film is that, for a story concerning prostitution, consumption and decadence of all sorts, the effect is remarkably light-hearted, with Broadbent’s Harold Zidler feeling more like a jovial but concerned ringmaster than a glorified pimp, and Kidman’s Satine representing nothing as much as the archetype of female beauty. It helps that she is, arguably, the most beautiful actress of our age, with an almost transcendent quality that recalls Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly; it’s impossible to imagine, say, Julia Roberts or even Cameron Diaz being remotely convincing in the same role.
When using superlatives to describe a film, the danger is always that, five years down the line, such a description will seem laughable. Today, Titanic, Forrest Gump and even Schindler’s List are seen as overrated to some extent, all Oscar-winning films that managed to succeed thanks largely to hype and intelligent marketing. Of course, there is no danger that any of them will be forgotten, thanks to the marketing powers of DVD re-releases, among other things. Yet it is a rare film that one can predict will endure for generations, simply because of its inherent quality, its incredible originality and the sheer brilliance with which it has been conceived, executed and, in this DVD presentation, finally presented.
Moulin Rouge is, for many, that film; perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it has appealed to many people who normally loathe musicals, have little interest in romance stories and find the kind of frenetic editing used here loathsome. I believe the film to be a masterpiece, in the true sense of the word, and an artistic achievement more than worthy of comparison with such classics of the cinema as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Barry Lyndon- three films that I would not hesitate to class as works of genius by directors who, like Luhrmann, proved themselves to be the ‘visionaries’ that the DVD’s packaging so proudly boasts he is.
(What did you expect? A plot summary?)
As you would hope for a film this visually sumptuous, the transfer does the film complete justice. Colours are incredibly rich and vivid, even when the pace of the cutting has accelerated to 60 shots a minute; there is no visible evidence of grain, print damage or, indeed, of any kind of imperfection. Taken as a purely sensual experience, this is revelatory; how many DVDs can you say that about? A truly stunning effort from Fox that raises the bar for future DVD transfers.
The soundtrack may not seem, on first glance, as dynamic as that of Saving Private Ryan or Gladiator. However, it is almost as big a revelation as the film itself. The songs are presented absolutely brilliantly, with their presentation coming up to the standards of any music DVD, especially on the stunning DTS track (which some viewers have reported lip sync problems with, although I didn't notice any such problem myself). The surrounds are constantly integrated into the action, the sound effects are beautifully used, and the overall effect is one of wonder. On an aesthetic level, this is as pleasing as the picture.
People occasionally speculate which the best DVD studio is. Some argue that Criterion produce the best DVDs; certainly, the quality of their product is frequently excellent, but their high prices and occasionally undistinguished discs mean that blind acclaim for them is less widespread than, perhaps, it once was. A more reasonable candidate is Fox, who have gone from being a supporter of non-anamorphic, featureless discs to producing some of the finest DVDs on the market. In 2001 alone, we have had Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, Die Hard, The Phantom Menace and Castaway, with this disc as the crowning glory for a very, very good year for them. Next year looks as good, with films like Speed, Predator, M*A*S*H and Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet getting similar treatment.
This disc is nothing short of spectacular. While it is just about possible to carp at the couple of features that might, conceivably, have been included on the disc (a commentary with Ewan and Nicole would have been nice, as would the superb BBC documentary showing Luhrmann promoting the film round the world), what we have still represents one of the most in-depth, entertaining and informative looks at a film's conception, production and release. The first disc opens with two excellent commentaries, both with Lurhmann; the first deals with the film's production and technical genesis, and the second with the writing and conception. Both are extremely funny, very accessible, and give a good insight into the mindset of these Bohemians. The other feature is a 'White Rabbit'-esque gimmick, where you can 'follow the fairy' (ooh, er, missus etc) to some behind-the-scenes footage, a text description of a scene or an interview. While very interesting, it's best watched with a commentary track on, so as not to lose track of the film.
The second disc is where the bulk of the extras are contained. Pleasingly, as with many Fox disc sets, the second disc actually feels necessary, rather than a marketing device. The first extra is a making-of documentary, which is interesting enough, but doesn't really communicate the sheer bravado of the film, with a couple of moments verging on the over-promotional. Still, it's worth a watch. The main extras are a series of featurettes, interviews, stills, multi-angle sequences and marketing devices that really do go into the film. It would be too tiresome to attempt to review each one individually, as well as liable to spoil the surprises contained within! Suffice it to say that every aspect of the film is covered, from the actors' thoughts on their characters to the special effects, with detours including a Fatboy Slim interview, footage of the infamous 'Lady Marmalade' party at the MTV Music awards, and, best of all, extended versions of some of the key dance numbers, including an epic version of the 'Roxanne' sequence. It will take, literally, days to go through all the extras on these discs; thankfully, their extremely high quality will make such effort worthwhile.
Tellingly, Luhrmann and co. acted as 'creative consultants' for this disc, and it really does show. While there have been some stunning special editions recently (In the Mood for Love and Monty Python and the Holy Grail spring to mind), none have seemed as completely in sync with the film that they have supported, and the disc's ultimate success is that it really does act as a companion piece to the film. The extras are not one-watch wonders, but genuinely fascinating pieces on the evolution of a contemporary classic.
The best film of the year is released on the best disc of the year. A sweeping statement, of course, but I can't think of another film that I have enjoyed so much, and on so many levels, for a long time. Fox have done an absolutely stunning job on this disc, and it's a definite, unconditional recommendation for everyone who genuinely loves film. Why, after watching this, you may feel as if you've been 'touched for the very first time...'