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Moulin Rouge! is a visually sensational musical about a poor writer, Christian, falling in love with a courtesan, Satine, and their struggle to remain together while organizing a stage show financed by a nameless duke whom also covets Satine.
I have never seen a move as grandiose as this. The term I would use to best describe it would be a harbinger of sensory overload. Every perceptible element of the film was spectacular and flamboyant, from the colors, to the sets, to the costumes and characters and music and cinematography. This film is the antithesis of the likes of No Country for Old Men or The Hurt Locker; it’s unconcerned about realism and instead bathes in swaths of color and jovial dynamism. There was so much to take in that I ended up with two pages of notes on the film. I’ll try here to identify some of what I noticed, including several similarities to other films of director Baz Luhrmann.
From the very framing of this film, it’s unique. The 20th Century Fox logo and theme tune are presented by a musical conductor, and the film begins and ends behind a red curtain. This non-diegetic display introduces the events of the movie as, itself, a stage show, a fantastical presentation to behold. Indeed, that is what it felt like.
In the very first diegetic scene, when Christian’s first-person narration blankets a rapidly-moving visual tour of the film’s Paris, black and white was used rather than color. It doesn’t take a scholar to acknowledge this is used, along with depictions of ruin, dark alleyways, and presumed prostitutes, to impart a sense of bleakness into the introduction. When Christian discloses that his love is dead, this is affirmed and justified.
Once the movie’s introduction is complete and the story begins moving forward (although in flashback), the audience, and Christian, is introduced to the remarkably eccentric Bohemians. This whole cast of characters, The Bohemians, is a testament to the importance of costume design. Their amalgamous appearance of Steampunk-meets-Hipster-meets-Disneyland is quite a spectacle, and it’s no surprise this film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. Their outlandish fashion serves immediately, without so much as a word (well, falling through Christian’s ceiling did also help), to convey the eccentricity of their personalities. Their performances, of course, also help accomplish this, as well as the editing and design of this scene. The shots are short, the movements unnaturally rapid, and the lighting and set design are reminiscent another overly-saturated wonderland, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
One oft-recurring element in this film’s soundtrack, which I still don’t really understand, is the use of modern (well, 20th century, anyway) music in the explosively orchestral numbers. Their use does create a sort of Easter-egg hunt for viewers, who will recognize passages from songs by The Police, The Beatles, Nirvana, U2, Madonna, and more, but aside from this, I couldn’t say I understand the concrete reasoning behind the decision to use them. From what I’ve seen, using modern music in conjunction with old or historically-set stories seems to be something of a trademark of Baz Luhrmann’s films, such as The Great Gatsby and Romeo+Juliet.
There was extensive use of very short shots in this movie, particularly in scenes set at the eponymous Moulin Rouge when in full operation. Shots in the scene of the club’s first appearance are fractions of seconds long, and, along with the hyper-speed movements, create quite a sense of hysteria and dynamism. This whole scene is a veritable bacchanalia, and its editing helps adequately convey such to the audience (much like that of Gatby’s parties in The Great Gatsby).
Though, like in most films, the rule of thirds is used throughout, one particularly apparent instance was when the duke was introduced. On the left, the duke, on the right, Christian, and a hefty wall in between them. This clearly depicts them as being in stark contrast to one another, not on the same side, and in contention with each other. Such an informative shot was obviously no accident.
This is but a very small detail, but I still find it worthy of note. When Christian steals Satine away from the Duke to “work on a scene” and they end up kissing in the mezzanine, the voice of Zidler can be heard saying “…we being on act two: the lovers are discovered!” While he is not talking about Christian and Satine directly, the audience knows by the choice arrangement of this dialogue with a shot of them, that the dialogue indeed refers to them. Therefore, this arrangement acts as a foreshadowing to Christian and Satine’s relationship being discovered.
Though I could still write more, I’ll end with my observation that this movie is not very concerned with verisimilitude. But then, how could a musical be; strange would be the world in which people spontaneously break into song on a daily basis. The aforementioned bookending of the story also makes the viewer very aware they’re watching a fictional, unreal movie, as does the spectacular wall-of-sound orchestra that accompanies much of the film. Sometimes there’s more to a film than being verisimilar, and this carnival-of-a-film proves that.
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