It’s like visiting an old friend…time for another Differing Opinion! I was curious to see this movie because it appeared on Dan Murrell’s (from the YouTube channel Screen Junkies) list of his top 40 movies of all time. You can check it out here: https://letterboxd.com/sjdan/list/dan-murrells-40-favorite-movies/. I trust Dan’s taste in film like few other reviewers out there, so I was expecting another win when I finally sat down to watch Moulin Rouge. Sadly, I can’t see what he was talking about with this one; Baz Luhrmann’s Best Picture nominee fell completely flat due to misguided creative decisions, lack of narrative tension, and overall weirdness. To put it simply, there were several times where I openly questioned, “What the heck am I watching?”
The film opens on Christian (Ewan McGregor) reminiscing about his time spent in Paris a year prior. It’s a tried-and-true storytelling technique that works fine, but Moulin Rouge immediately undercuts that trope by having Christian reveal that the woman he loved is now dead. This isn’t a case like The Sixth Sense either where (SPOILER, but it’s been almost 20 years) the film hints at Bruce Willis’ death in the beginning without blatantly ruining the twist. The characters continue to beat you over the head with this information concerning Satine (Nicole Kidman), the aforementioned woman. Everyone from Harold Zidler to the doctors repeatedly remind Satine (and the audience) that she’s suffering from tuberculosis and could die at any moment. Since the unlikely love story between her and Christian constitutes the centerpiece of the whole movie, this is not something we should find out almost immediately. It eliminates any notion of suspense that could’ve bolstered the tragic ending of Satine dying in Christian’s arms. If the movie had simply started with Christian’s arrival in France, maybe this review wouldn’t exist.
I’m not one of those people who hate the concept of musicals outright (I’m sure you’ve heard about my tiny obsession with La La Land). Music in general holds a special place in my heart, so I’m always fascinated to see how it’s used in film. Unfortunately, I believe that Moulin Rouge hurts the genre by trying to juxtapose a period piece with modern pop songs. It takes place IN 19TH CENTURY FRANCE; why are there people singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”? Perhaps I’m completely missing the point of a jukebox musical where the whole point is to use previously popular songs, but the effect is so jarring that it spoils the experience for me. There’s only one original song in the film; I realize it’s hard to compose them, but watching a musical and only hearing familiar pop or rap songs screams of a cop-out more than anything else.
Finally, the film heavily emphasizes style over substance to its detriment. Obviously with Baz Luhrmann, the production value will always be top-notch; if nothing else, his version of The Great Gatsby excels in this category. But the visual smorgasbord is surrounded by neither a compelling narrative (due to the early reveal) nor any semblance of fluid editing. There are multiple sequences that rapidly flip through images or unnecessarily speed up/slow down time. Again, maybe it’s supposed to be this disorienting so the film can bask in its own chaos, but “chaos” doesn’t equate to a good movie (remember Big Trouble in Little China?) in my eyes. There is a time and place for a director to go way over the top, but not when any evidence of a coherent product begins to disappear.
I wish I could agree with Dan Murrell as usual, but I fail to understand how this belongs in the conversation of the best movies of all time. Moulin Rouge is certainly unique and stylistic, but it’s a mess when compared to other musicals. There are a ton of weird characters: Jim Broadbent’s Zidler, John Leguizamo playing a dwarf, and the Duke. It’s like Baz Luhrmann told everyone to “go for it” without considering how it would translate onscreen. Ewan McGregor and the stunningly beautiful Nicole Kidman do the best with what they’re given and their love story almost saves the movie, but it’s not enough. Moulin Rouge is weighed down by an overabundance of pop culture that also includes “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “I Will Always Love You.” Unlike other movies with twists, this one openly tells you how it’s going to end and proceeds to reiterate the point. After much thought, I finally figured out the perfect way to describe the movie: a combination of Shakespeare in Love (tonal inconsistency) and 2016’s Sing (compilation of cover songs). That might sound awesome to some, but since I hate both those things, I also hate Moulin Rouge.