For our second review this week, Stevi Costa revisits a very important work from her past and comes back with ruminations on relationships, artistic excess, Glee, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Elton John and the Oscar-winning costume work of Catherine Martin.
In what absolutely cannot be a coincidence (because our director was not that creative), our high school musical that year was Gigi, which is also about Paris and prostitution. The Moulin Rouge jokes carried over nicely throughout the production, which Eric and I both worked on, with Eric building sets and me playing the conniving, money-obsessed Aunt Alicia who spends the duration of the play trying to whore out her young niece Gigi who, as far as I can tell, was 12.
Moulin Rouge has been a central part of my cinematic consciousness since that summer, and not just when Eric and I are making jokes about singing-dancing whores. And not only is it a movie that I consider a touchstone, but also something that means a lot to me on a personal level. Marcus (your lead re-viewer here at 10YA and my husband) and I started dating that summer and Moulin Rouge was, I’d like to think, a key part of our relationship. We were both very fond of musicals and, like the film’s bohemian revolutionaries, looked forward to the potential cinematic revolution this could usher in: a new age for the movie musical. Marcus and I spent a lot of our time renting vintage MGM musicals, attending local theatre, and being generally swept up in the romance of that artistic ideal. When he proposed to me a few years later, he did so by first distracting me with a signed promotional shot of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor (she in her “Diamonds” costume, he in his tux) that I’d always loved because it was something that seemed to capture the two actors genuinely enjoying themselves between takes. (The ring was presented afterward, when I asked him to put the photo back in his bag to protect it from the slight rain on the Santa Monica Pier. We later went to midnight Moulin Rouge on the 3rd Street Promenade, where I won a bit of Moulin Rouge promotional material in a costume contest.) Our bedroom is adorned with the original promotional posters for the film that frame a key image from Moulin Rouge alongside one of the bohemian ideals: freedom (the Moulin Rouge itself), beauty (Satine on the trapeze for “Diamonds”), truth (Christian in the rain during “Tango de Roxanne”), and love (Christian and Satine’s kiss during “Elephant Love Medley”).
So, in short, the film carries a lot of emotional significance for me, central to my memories of my two favorite men who also happen to be two of the most important people in my life. I remember watching Moulin Rouge a lot when I was in college, but I don’t think I’d sat down to watch it since at least 2005. So even though it’s not a full ten years, there’s still a significant gap between my last viewing and this review. So how has this film that I hold so dear held up now that I’m not a gothabilly teenage theatre geek?
I still very devoutly love Moulin Rouge, though now I find the story itself less enchanting than I once did. But I also understand now that the simplicity of the story is what makes it such a great showpiece to hang all of the film’s glorious excesses on. It has to be simple, because if it were complex, it would stop being a spectacle. And it’s that over-the-top spectacularity that I really adore about Moulin Rouge and every other Baz Luhrmann film — even his too-long and much derided epic Australia. Luhrmann’s films, as a class, are all about simple stories filled with melodramatic excess. They are these strange concoctions that seem entirely disconnected from reality, and that’s ultimately what I think works for Luhrmann’s films. He’s not about cinema verite. He’s not about reality at all. His work is about artifice and makes a point of showing you just how highly constructed those artifices are. For me, that’s where the excess comes in, and it’s particularly what I love about the way Luhrmann chooses to open Moulin Rouge. The framing device of Christian writing the story we are about to see allows us to experience two different modes of excess within fin de siècle Paris. First, the excess of ennui and sadness that the underworld ultimately offers, which is presented through the gray, desolate CGI Paris, whose streets are filled with leering faces of prostitutes and others. These figures pop up at the camera in a really menacing way, daring you to look at their abjectness. The same shot is repeated when Christian delves into the actual narrative of his story. Only now, Paris is in color, and the menacing faces are replaced by seductive ones that still pop up at the camera in the same abrupt, disjointed fashion. This is a different kind of excess, an excess of joy and spectacularity. I call both of these shots excessive in the sense that these two shots do not in any way attempt to replicate the way an eye moves, but the way a camera moves, jerky and abrupt. The faces, both menacing and seductive, fill the entire frame with their affect. You can’t get away from them, from these tiny CGI corridors. As a viewer, you’re trapped in this world and that feeling in itself is a kind of excess, mediated by a camera that shows you it’s a camera and populated by CGI that wants you to know its CGI. Excessive artifice finds its way into a number of other shots, but I’ll just list out a few other examples here: Zidler flying into the Moulin Rouge over what would otherwise be a perfectly reasonable overhead shot of the dancers, Christian and Satine floating on a trail of stars to the roof in “Your Song,” the overly large gun bouncing off the Eiffel Tower during the finale. None of those things look real or are intended to look real, and that’s what I like about it.
The film’s excesses are also what remakes a story that’s essentially a Victorian melodrama into something totally postmodern. The shots I described above, particularly the ones that move through Paris and into the Moulin Rouge, create a real sense of schizophrenia and fragmentation, which complements the fragmentation of the narrative between the present of Christian writing and the past of Christian’s narration. The camera captures so much of the spectacle of the Moulin Rouge within the film’s opening mashup of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lady Marmalade” that it produces an overload of sensory experiences in the viewer, which makes for a kind of schizophrenic viewing experience. They eye is drawn to so many places at once that it doesn’t know quite where to look and is constantly trying to take in as much as possible. (Not to mention that when the faces of the patrons, dancers, and streetwalkers leer back at us, our comfortable position as viewers is disrupted because it feels as though we, too, are being viewed as something spectacular.) The excesses here are exactly what makes it postmodern, in addition to the musical’s reliance on pre-existing music and Luhrmann’s conscious pastiche of cinematic genres: the MGM musical, the slapstick comedy, the dance film, the melodrama, etc. Remaking a modern genre for the post-modern age requires all of these things, and that’s why Moulin Rouge ultimately still works for me.
But what works for me the most even today is the glorious spectacular excess of the musical numbers and Catherine Martin’s costume work. I have no issue with musicals not using original music (though I prefer to hear, say, something new than something redone), but I do take issue when musicals use cover songs without any thought. As a genre, the musical stopped being a clothesline for disjointed songs when Rodgers and Hammerstein started writing stories that integrated music in a diagetic fashion so that no song stood outside of the narrative. The music worked for the story and not the other way around. Though I’m not a huge fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre, they changed the face of a truly American theatrical genre into something beyond spectacle. Moulin Rouge makes a point of using its songs to forward story and character with its intentional nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (the absolutely worst of the RH collaborations, in my opinion). The Bohemians include the titular song as their symbol of the ultra modern, and Christian’s improvising of Oscar Hammerstein’s pithy lyrics is what gets him on the fast track to the Moulin Rouge. The reference to the inventors of diagetic musical theatre here sets up the remainder of the film to use music in the purposeful way that Rodgers and Hammerstein and their successors always did. Ultimately, it’s that idea of a musical with a story that, in the metanarrative of Spectacular, Spectacular!, is what makes the Bohemians’ show so totally revolutionary. Victor Herbert was not fucking doing that shit at the turn of the century, if you know what I mean.
So while the way Luhrmann films every musical number is dripping with excess and bombastic orchestrations, I love that excess because it intensifies the purposeful way that each of the songs are used. Take “Your Song” for example. Anyone familiar with the works of Elton John knows that his writing partner Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are patently ridiculous. Those songs are only good because of John’s music. (Do not even get me started on “Crocodile Rock,” which I think is truly the highlight of Taupin’s lyrical “genius.”) So to hear Christian repurpose “Your Song” as a kind of spontaneous poetry, breaking down Taupin’s words into succinct phrases that filter out of the song and into the narrative before turning back into the song again, is sheer brilliance. To have “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” be Satine’s showpiece is equally genius. More than just a showpiece, though, the song serves to establish the conditions in which the Moulin Rouge’s courtesans (especially its star, Satine) live. (Notice how Satine, Zidler, and others basically rob their wealthy patrons as she teases them with her song and dance.) My absolute favorite, though, from this re-viewing, is the way the film uses Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” to narrate the Moulin Rouge’s point of crisis. I wish that Glee were always half as brilliant and intentional in its music selection as Moulin Rouge is for the entirety of its duration. Hell, even “Like a Virgin” utterly works for the narrative and gives the film a true Busby Berkeley moment.
And I cannot possibly write about Moulin Rouge without talking about Catherine Martin’s absolutely stunning costume work. A lot of my academic work focuses on theatricality and spectacle and the way these things shape and construct the bodies of performers, with a particular emphasis on sideshow performers. It’s difficult for me to not think about how costuming creates and constructs the body, and I love it when good film and theatre costuming takes into account how it does this. Half of my notes from this re-view are dedicated to Martin’s costumes and their utter perfection. (The other half are about my massive crush on Ewan McGregor.) And as much as I want Penny Lane’s coat from Almost Famous, I want to own every single thing in this film even more. Martin’s work is such an inspiration for my own costume work for burlesque and cabaret, and when I watched this film again and drank in the lusciousness of her fabrics, the brilliance of her rhinestones, and her artful use of textures to enhance characters and narratives, I can’t help but think that it really isn’t any wonder at all that I’ve continued to find ways to wear these things, to fill my own life with the excesses of the Moulin Rouge. Here’s a list of my favorite costumes in the film:
Nene Legs-in-the-Air’s Can-Can skirt: Nene is clearly the alto role that this musical doesn’t actually provide any songs for (which is it’s one major detriment in my eyes: its lack of adherence to traditional musical theatre voice parts; e.g. too many male voices and only one female singing role). Yet Nene should really be the star of the Moulin Rouge, as she’s clearly the best dancer and leads every Can-Can scene. Martin gave all of her Can-Can dancers unique costumes, and the fact that Nene’s is bright yellow and ringed with sparkling pink and red images of the Moulin Rouge itself works for me to show Nene’s lifelong dedication to this establishment and her identity with it. Her role is totally underdeveloped. I wish she had more screen time. So this skirt is the thing for me that establishes her ties to the venue and would motivate her jealously of Satine enough to tip off the Duke to Satine’s affair with Christian. It’s this skirt that really links that whole plot together for me, and it’s really beautifully subtle in doing so.
Travesty, the Can-Can dancer who dresses like a gorgeous transvestite equestrian pro-dom. I do love a lady in a grey mourning coat and a top hat. (She’s the one the Narcoleptic Argentinean makes out with at the celebration party.)
Satine’s “Diamonds” costume. Just wow.
Satine’s “Valero/Pink Diamonds” costume. If ever I were to be a burlesque version of a flamingo, this is how I’d do it. Right down to the sparkling heart bumper and boa-plumed tail.
Satine’s red dress from “Elephant Love Medley.” That red dress is such a stunner that there was a brief (re: crazy) period of time in which I wanted it as my wedding dress. It’s also the one costume continuity misstep in the film. Satine puts it on to meet Christian-who-she-thinks-is-the-Duke, but by the time we see them in the Elephant, she’s wearing that ungainly black corset and pregnoir. Now, I’m willing to believe that they went to dinner or met somewhere else while she was wearing the dress and that she took it off the minute they got to the Elephant in order to more perfectly seduce the Duke into investing. What I am not willing to believe is that she put the dress on by herself afterward (because we know Marie has to lace her into that thing!) just to climb to the top of her elephant in the middle of the night to wonder and dream about her future (“One Day I’ll Fly Away”) before Christian just happens to wander up there. There’s a continuity error in there somewhere, perhaps a scene on the cutting room floor where she and Marie have some heartfelt chat about how Spectacular, Spectacular will make her a star while Marie laces her back into that dress to go do whatever other kind of entertaining she might have to do. It’s a glorious dress, but it’s the only costume of Satine’s that gets worn twice so I have to ask myself why that is.
Satine’s cream wool suit during the Spectacular, Spectacular rehearsals. Most fabulous Victorian day dress ever. Second only to . . .
Satine’s tweed and velvet suit during “The Show Must Go On.” Now this is a suit that means business. The tweed? The mutton sleeves? The hard asymmetrical angles of the velvet waist cincher? The giant, off-to-one-side button? Perfection. It’s precisely the kind of dramatic game face Satine needs to put on to save the Moulin Rouge. This plus the fascinator with the mourning veil? Spectacular, spectacular indeed.
Satine’s Indian-inspired dress during rehearsals. This is a really interesting costume for me because it’s gorgeous aesthetically, but also signifies the overlap between the meta and main narratives. It’s a Victorian day-dress (using shorter versions of the popular 1870s pagoda sleeves) done up in Orientalist fabrics. I mean, yes, Orientalism is totally in during the late 19th century, but this dress is the one point in the film that intentionally references that, and the fact that Satine wears it during the scene where Nene outs Satine to the Duke reveals Satine herself to be that Hindu courtesan of the story. It’s a really nice move on Martin’s part to reinforce the point at which the narratives catch up to each other through her costuming. This kind of attention to detail is why you win Oscars, people.
Christian’s lederhosen. Hot.
Christian’s “Tango de Roxanne” overcoat. Hotter.
Christian’s shirtless-suspenders-hat combo during “Come What May.” Hottest.
I wish I could own all of those fabulous dresses, but I wish even more that I could have my own Ewan McGregor. When I was a shift leader at the now-defunct Hollywood Video during college, my friend Amber and I would close the store together on Friday nights. Both having major crushes on Ewan McGregor, we’d defy the viewing rules of the store and, one hour before close, would put on an Ewan McGregor film and wait until a joke was made about his penis (or, if we were lucky and timed our viewings correctly, an actual appearance by said organ after the store was officially closed). Moulin Rouge was a particular favorite of ours, because not only were there many jokes about McGregor’s “huge talent,” but also many safe-for-work shots of his gorgeous face (both bearded and unbearded) and the constant sound of his beautiful voice. There’s no more charismatic leading man Luhrmann and company could have chosen to hold together this zany, post-modern genre-reinvigorating film. Even if I find the story less thrilling than I once did, I think that McGregor is such a good centerpiece for the film that I still believe it and am enraptured by it whenever I sit down to watch it. His charisma is another one of the films excesses that makes it such an inviting piece of madness that you want to partake in. All in all, I’d say that Moulin Rouge is still, in fact, spectacular, spectacular.
John Leguizamo is totally giving his all in this film, perhaps even more so than his turn as Tybalt in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I still cry a bit when he delivers the following line: “Christian, you may only see me as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels, but I know about art and I know about love. Believe me Christian, she loves you.”
I cannot tell if Jim Broadbent is just having the best time of his life, or if he’s on massive amounts of drugs in every scene in this film. Maybe it’s both!
Satine’s eye makeup in the scenes immediately after her fall from the trapeze is absolutely breathtaking. I wish my eye makeup looked like that all the time.
I feel so embarrassed for Nicole Kidman whenever I see her scene where she’s trying to hide Christian from the Duke. Why? That scene was her Oscar clip that year.
My two favorite line readings from Richard Roxburgh as the Duke: “My dear! A little frog!” and “I don’t like this ending!”
Broadbent’s line reading at the beginning of “Like a Virgin” is terribly creepy, but terribly effective.
Another favorite line from the Duke: “You expect me to believe that scantily clad, in the arms of another man, in the middle of the night, inside an ELEPHANT, you were rehearsing?”
After all these years, I can’t decide which one of Ewan McGregor’s moles I think is cuter: the one on his cheek, or the one in the middle of his forehead.