There are several reasons why I thought that I’d love Moulin Rouge!, which only led to me being severely disappointed when I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Then recently, when I was super ill and craving fluffy nonsense to watch, I decided to rewatch it. It couldn’t be that bad, I figured, not with all those awesome elements. I had to be remembering wrongly, surely.
Well it turns out that I should learn to trust my memory. That film is so going on my Fan Death list.
I’m assuming that most people are familiar with the film- but if not a brief summary: it’s a musical set in Montmartre, Paris in 1899; a love story between Christian, an English writer (Ewan McGregor) and Satine (Nicole Kidman), the courtesan he falls for.
Oliver Babbish in The West Wing once remarked that:
“Nature, like a woman, will seduce you with its sights and its scents and its touch, and then it breaks your ankle, also like a woman.”
Moulin Rouge! totally did that to me. Minus the broken ankle, surprisingly enough. (My clumsiness, it is the stuff of legend.) There were several ways in which it seduced me, twice no less:
Moulin Rouge, Paris (Miss Thropist)
I seriously fricking love windmills. I want one. I want to fix up one that’s gone to rack and ruin (with an EU grant, natch) and make it fabulous. I want to live like the titular character of Jonathan Creek. I will not tolerate references to them being Satanic, even William Blake made some missteps. In fact, presenting me with a picture of a windmill is a tried and tested method of earning my forgiveness for whatever terrible acts have been perpetrated against me. I must admit that seeing the real Moulin Rouge in Paris (pictured above) was a tad disappointing, it’s a little shabby- and indeed a little little. However the suitable prettiness of the Moulin de la Galette made up for it.
2. The music
I was clearly an incredibly camp gay man in a past life, I have an unabashed love of showtunes. I don’t love musicals indiscriminately, but I do love a lot: I count The Wizard of Oz, Rocky Horror, Dr Horrible, Cat Ballou and Oklahoma amongst my favourite films, for example. A skit at a recent La Soiree event we attended revolved around a random member of the audience being forced to attempt to sing along to ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story (now there’s a film I want to rewatch!)- and I really just didn’t get the joke. Who the hell are these people who don’t know all the words to every song from West Side Story, and what is their damage?
Moulin Rouge sounded like an especially fun kind of musical, because it uses songs like ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Like A Virgin’- twentieth century songs that, and this is the crucial part, I already know the words to. Hey presto the learning curve’s gone, and you can sing along from the very first watch! On paper at least I loved the sound of this mashed up postmodern soundtrack.
The film was really sold to me as something incredibly fun. Burlesque outfits, huge song and dance routines, people dancing on clouds, a giant elephant, Kylie playing the absinthe fairy…
There’s even an exclamation mark in the title!
4. Happy whores
Happy whores are one of my favourite tropes (and maybe that’s why I like the character of Inara, and the concept of Companions, in Firefly so much). Maybe it’s because I don’t believe that prostitution in and of itself is wrong, and that keeps on earning me accusations of being a bad feminist. At any rate I was looking forward to a cheerful depiction of prostitution in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.
I was also looking forward to the depiction of the bohemian lifestyle in Montmartre at the time. I declare my intention to run away and join the circus, one touring a warmer climate than England at the moment of course, on average about once a week. These peeps were totally my spiritual forefathers.
All these factors conspired to make me think I’d love the film, but the reality was quite different:
1. Nicole Kidman
She’s not a bad actress and her singing voice wasn’t horrible, but I really don’t think she was great casting for Satine. I think that Nicole Kidman can play sexy in a certain way (think Practical Magic) but she doesn’t really have that over the top sexiness that Satine’s role, and costumes, really demanded. Compare ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from the film with Salma Hayek’s snake dance from From Dusk Till Dawn for example.
Let’s keep Nicole Kidman playing crazy, uptight people instead please.
2. The unattractive and annoying troupe
I actually hated Toulouse-Lautrec and his troupe. Their voices, their characters and their horrible little faces were the audio-personality-visual triple whammy equivalent of fingers on the chalkboard. Way to ruin my bohemian fantasy, Moulin Rouge!.
3. We know that she knows, you know?
The emotional tension in this film is provided by Satine having to choose between true love (Christian) and money. The Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). However it’s pretty hard to get emotionally invested in this storyline, when the audience finds out pretty early in the film that Satine is dying. Dropping some subtle hints that all came together at the conclusion might have worked a whole lot better.
4. Songs without emotional meaning
The songs in musicals are supposed to advance the plot, and if they don’t they’re simply window dressing. They should allow the characters to give voice to thoughts and emotions that it would be difficult to otherwise express- a device explicitly embraced by the musical episode of Buffy ‘Once More With Feeling’ where several secrets are spilled in song. Obviously it helps when the songs are tailored specifically to the context- when the lyrics actually apply to the plot- but this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Think of Glee, which has never used an original song. The characters often choose to perform songs that they have a strong connection with, or alternatively discover meaning in a song that they were assigned. The show certainly packs an emotional punch- I still get misty every time I hear Kurt’s version of ‘Defying Gravity’ (and since that’s on, like, every single one of my playlists it happens a whole lot). You don’t really get that sense with the songs in Moulin Rouge!, most of them are done well and they’re fun song and dance numbers- but that’s all they are.
5. I can no longer hear the word sitar without cringing
Over repetition of the same words was getting on my nerves a whole lot, and I’m sure that the annoying troupe weren’t helping matters. And it wasn’t just the sitar line either, the saccharine stuff about the bohemian ideals got old really fast. Repetition can be a great device, and I’ll refer once again to The West Wing for symmetry’s sake. The same phrase, like “there’s Indians in the lobby”, from the inventively titled ‘The Indians in the Lobby’, can be hilarious. The West Wing was famous for its snappy, rhythmic dialogue, and it made great use of repetition. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but when it’s just the characters gratingly saying the same thing over again- that’s just lazy writing.
In conclusion: next time I’m ill I think I’ll rewatch a couple of classic Glee episodes, or maybe pop in Will Schuester’s fave Singin’ in the Rain.