When I was fifteen, my school put on a production of Les Miserables (which, as you know, is one of my favourite stories of all time). It was my first year in musical theatre, and I was absolutely psyched—until they cast me as, and I quote, “Whore #3.” Obviously it was exactly the sort of role that every girl dreams about getting, and I didn’t even go home crying about how my teachers obviously thought I was a tramp or anything.
My point is, I was young and had no idea how to act like a hooker, which was necessary for the dock scene in Act 1. No, it wasn’t like I had to mount one of my male classmates on stage in front of a thousand strangers (one of the older girls got to do that), but I did have to gyrate like a deranged stripper with a feather boa. And as the stage manager informed me, I wasn’t slutty enough. So she told me to go home and watch Moulin Rouge!.
I went home. I put on the movie. And two hours and a box of Kleenex later, I was sitting in front of my computer with tears pouring down my cheeks, only able to choke out the words, “But their love was so pure!” It was a movie-viewing experience like nothing I had ever had before, and as Ewan McGregor’s soulful voice crooned, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” I knew that I, who professed to hate mushy romantic movies so vehemently, would be forever changed by this cinematic masterpiece.
Well, except for the part where I was still godawful as Whore #3.
“The Moulin Rouge. A nightclub, a dance hall, and a bordello. Ruled over by Harold Zidler. A kingdom of nighttime pleasures where the rich and powerful come to play with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld. And the most beautiful of all these was the woman I loved, Satine, a courtesan. She sold her love to men. They called her “the Sparkling Diamond,” and she was the star of the Moulin Rouge. The woman I loved is… dead.”
Everything you need to know about the story is summed up the first lines. A man, Christian, and a woman, Satine, are two people from completely different social backgrounds who fall in love in a place that can’t sustain it. The owner of the bordello won’t allow it. A jealous suitor seeks to destroy it. And, though we don’t know exactly how or why yet, we know that Satine will die.
This isn’t the story of the little romance that could. Though there are plenty of laughs, tears, and spectacular musical numbers along the way, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. And that’s why I love it. It’s not a mushy romantic comedy that builds its humour on female clumsiness or random happenstance and its romance on lukewarm kisses in the rain. It’s a big, bold, daring film that people either love or hate, and while I admit that I inflicted it on Thom because I know for an absolutely certainty that he’ll hate it, he will, at the very least, be objective.
Because when it comes to this, one of the movies I love most, I can’t possibly be objective. And I suppose that’s just how people get when it comes to the things they love.
by Thom Yee
We’re not always going to make good decisions in our lives. We might pick the wrong entrée at a new restaurant, we might answer a text and miss our highway exit, we might even pick the wrong career path and only figure that out 20 years later at the end of a bullet. All for lack of foresight. Whether we’re following our instincts, our better judgment, or the overriding need to just do something different for once, things just go wrong, sometimes catastrophically so. That’s the peril of the every day as we step outside and face the world. That’s what makes life worth living: the risk.
For me, that risk, that wrong decision, was falling in love. For me, it was falling in love in high school. I’ve always been a precocious kid, and emotionally I’d place myself at the next level of whatever school I was in at the moment. In elementary, I was ready to be in junior high, in junior high, I was ready to be in high school. So by the time I got to high school, I really should’ve been more prepared for what I faced.
I met her at the end of Grade 10, but we never really spoke until Grade 11 when we just happened to get jobs at the same store. And while I was too shy to do much more than nod my head when I noticed that she saw me, she always seemed to make a point to say ‘hi’ and talk for a little while. And she usually gave me a hug. Eventually, I came to look forward to that hug more than anything else in my life at that point. After a while, bit by bit, I got to know her, but it took me a long time to ask her out. So when I did and she said ‘Yes’, she was surprised that it took me so long. After all, she’d given me her number and slipped it in my pocket a few weeks earlier. I was just too stupid to notice.
I can’t say that going out with her was ever that easy, even though she was a lot of fun. It was me. I just couldn’t believe that this girl, this perfect girl who was so clearly in tune with life, would ever want to spend any time with me, or that I could possibly have found someone so great so soon. I was just so afraid of screwing things up that I never really let myself out. I never really connected with her even though I so desperately wanted to. We went out for about four weeks. And then she asked me if she should start dating another guy she and I both knew who had just asked her out. She just never thought that we were really dating, that we couldn’t be headed anywhere serious. It was just the way I acted around her — she could tell I was holding back. So I left, not because I wanted to be away from her, but because I knew there was a part of me that can never really connect with people. And that was my first real relationship. You may think you’re close to someone, you may even think you know them well… but they need to know you too. I should’ve known better.
I couldn’t help recall the depth of emotion I had felt back in high school and that first relationship as I watched the theatrical love story I had been forced to watch for this week’s review.
Or, more honestly, I didn’t recall anything like that. Almost everything I’ve just told you never happened. Yes, I went to high school, and yes, Grace made me review Moulin Rouge! for He Says/She Says month, but everything else was a lie. In other words I just wasted your time. And I want you to feel confused, and slightly mad, that everything you’ve just read meant nothing. Because that’s how I felt after watching Moulin Rouge!
Right from the beginning, you pretty much know everything that’s going to happen through a combination of the most important parts of the story being telegraphed to us by our hero, Christian (Ewan McGregor), a broad awareness of story in general, and overly flamboyant marketing (remember this?) that manages to bridge the generational gap between then, 2001 (the year of the movie’s release), and now, 2013. And, for me, that pretty much made everything in between the movie’s beginning and end nothing more than filler. One thing I should make clear is that I don’t watch musicals, I don’t watch stage plays, and I don’t watch movies like this. Productions like Moulin Rouge! are the types of stories I explicitly, willfully, and perhaps unfairly, tuned out while growing up and continue to tune out to this day. They’re not things I necessarily classify as bad… but they’re definitely a turn-off.
So Christian, an aspiring writer in late 19th-century France, becomes mixed up with a group of performers led by Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). The group wishes to perform for Harold Zidler, owner of the Moulin Rouge, but Zidler is much more interested in having Satine (Nicole Kidman), his star courtesan, give a private performance for the Duke of Monroth, a potential investor. Through some sort of mixup, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke, the two spark a relationship before the truth is revealed and continue their relationship after, Christian and Lautrec’s group insinuate themselves into the Moulin Rouge as a new act and convince the Duke to invest. But as Christian and Satine’s relationship blossoms, the Duke’s jealousy over their relationship threatens the entire… whatever the Moulin Rouge is supposed to be (it’s a whore house, right?). Also, Satine’s dying of tuberculosis, so that’s dramatic.
The obvious word to apply to Moulin Rouge! is theatrical, which most people take to mean bigger than life. There’s a tipping point though. I can tolerate the occasional song bursting out, but when almost the entire story is told through song, as in Moulin Rouge!, the whole thing moves from “bigger than life” to “other than life”.
In many ways, a movie like Moulin Rouge! isn’t something you break down, parse, or try to appreciate for anything more than what it is on an instinctive level. It’s not measured in terms of its performances (which appeared to be superb), it’s story (which appeared to fit), or its cinematography (which appeared to tell the story well). It’s not a question of quality, so much as degrees of love. Did you love Moulin Rouge!? How much did you love Moulin Rouge!? And if you didn’t love it, you must have hated it. For me though, it feels like I didn’t even watch a movie. There’s just nothing there for me TO watch. There’s only so much I can say about a movie like Moulin Rouge!, and that’s a big part of why I frontloaded this review with a bunch of bullsh*t. It’s possible to discuss plot, it’s possible to explore themes, it’s possible to examine imagery, score, cinematography, it’s possible to pound down any of the usual critical elements until they’re a fine powder, but to me that’s most of what this movie was from the start — fleeting, ephemeral, a fine substance blowing back and forth on the winds as I failed to latch onto anything and my mind wandered away to a different place.
After I watched Moulin Rouge! and was utterly unabsorbed, I made a specific point to watch a more recent Baz Luhrman movie, The Great Gatsby, just to see if it was the director’s style that lost me or if it was just Moulin Rouge! itself that was the problem. As Gatsby started, I could feel the same storytelling hooks setting in — camera tricks, narrative style — but as I continued watching, Gatsby eventually won me over in a way Moulin Rouge! never came close to. I actually kind of loved Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, at least to the extent a heterosexual North American male can allow himself to love such a movie. And while I’d pin a lot of that on the comparative lack of musicality, I think some of it comes down to Tobey Maguire as narrator over Ewan MacGregor. I, like most of the world, harbor an unusual dislike for Maguire and an unusual attraction towards MacGregor (heterosexual or otherwise), but there’s just something in Maguire’s voice-overs in Gatsby that stuck with me, and something in MacGregor’s voiceovers in Moulin Rouge! that went right past me. I think I just don’t like MacGregor’s singing voice and that made it hard to listen to anything he was saying.
Moulin Rouge! is a movie. I can say that almost for sure. Beyond that fact, there’s precious little I feel sure about saying. Moulin Rouge! is a movie. I wish I had something more solid to say than that. I explicitly watched The Great Gatsby (Luhrman’s latest directorial effort) just to get a better handle on what I had seen in Moulin Rouge! It didn’t help. All I can say is that Moulin Rouge! is a movie. But I just didn’t care.
Moulin Rouge! final score: 3.0
On the Edge
-Remember when Nicole Kidman was a big deal?
-From reviews, I gather that Luhrman’s Gatsby missed a lot of the heavier themes of the novel. After watching the movie though, there’s one thing I’m sure of: it would’ve made a terrible book.
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