It’s just perfect.
When approaching this some years seemed just too easy (in contrast, some years it was difficult to find anything), some years there were just too many choices. And then some years you had Moulin Rouge, still quite possibly my favourite film, still the film I’ve seen more than any other at the cinema and still as near to perfect as a film can get (for me at least). Moulin Rouge is pure cinema – no other medium (not even television) could replicate this. Watch it on a big screen and feel the sheer force as it assaults your eyes and ears, and then sit in as you find yourself drawn into something more than that. It really is just perfect.
Okay, yes, I’ll admit that the plot itself is pretty much pure tosh, but then on that basis so are the majority of operas (and it certainly shares traits with more than a few of them, most obviously La Boheme) and musicals. The key is that it has enough meat to it for all of the emotion of the film to be hung on without complexity getting in the way. Big, bold, emotional – it’s almost a three word mantra for every scene. It manipulates our emotions perfectly, but it only succeeds in doing this by putting us in the right frame of mind before we get there. Out of the glut of musicals that appeared at the beginning only Dancer In The Dark is anywhere near as original as this.
Simply put, Baz Luhrmann creates probably the most intensely opening twenty minutes of a film, twenty minutes that leave the audience feeling exhausted from the sheer spectacle of it, twenty minutes that mean most directors would then work half has hard to ring every emotion out of you – Luhrmann instead ups the amperage and delivers you across the finish line a physical wreck. It’s pure emotional manipulation from start to finish, but it is masterfully done. Even the credits deliver this, ending with four simple words that remind you that this is not a silly musical (which superficially it appears to be), but is intended to be something bigger than that. This is the closest film has ever got to being the perfect blend of music and drama without being a filmed opera. Unlike filmed opera it isn’t confined to the stage.
Watching it there’s a feeling that everyone involved knew that they were involved in something special, that there was a little bit of genius being created. Without total commitment from all involved then the film would not work, without complete trust in the directors vision this would just be a confusing mess. Everyone delivers, sure – Kidman & McGregor get all off the plaudits (rightly so, never has either of them been quite as appealing as here) but everyone gets it right, from the smallest non-speaking roles through to the dastardly villain (a superb Richard Roxburgh, camping it up like a malevolent Terry Thomas, all sneers and snide remarks, but here backed up by a vicious rage). Aside from the leads (who play it almost straight – another aspect lifted direct from opera) nearly everyone plays it at maximum volume, but then again this is a film that demands maximum volume, anything else would be just drowned out.
It would be remiss to dismiss Kidman & McGregor in such an offhand manner, but yes the film does succeed because it is easy to believe that they actually are star crossed lovers. It’s rare these days for an actually chemistry to exist between leads, but here there’s an abundance – and it all helps in wringing every last drop of commitment from the audience. It also helps that both of them can sing, not in the traditional diction-perfect musical self but full on singing-in-the-shower mode, big hearted and not caring. Again, it all sells the film wonderfully, each of them is superficially little more than the most basic of memes, but their commitment to building them into characters we actually care about (almost a rarity these days) ensures that the end is even more devastating. Kidman just nudges McGregor out by a nose, this is quite clearly her big moment and there are times if she’s going to be damned if anyone gets in her way. Everyone knows this, not least Luhrmann who ensures that she not only has one of the most memorable entrances of the decade (showing that for such a modern film it clearly harks back to the grand MGM musicals of the forties) but a suitably satisfying exit as well – and lest we feel cheated we’re told the ending less than five minutes into the film.
Now there are those that dismissed this at the time because it was a musical, but the reason for its success is that it is a musical that doesn’t try to mimic being a musical. Now, it could be argued that it has it easier than other high profile musical releases in that it isn’t based on an existing franchise, however it succeeds in that it fully embraces the language of cinema to be a musical rather than translate the language of stage. As I commented earlier this is a film that could not exist in any other medium, it requires the constant cutting, the frankly insane pace to succeed. Sure, it could have been twenty minutes longer and been something more like a conventional musical but then it wouldn’t be half as much fun. The insanity of this is what makes it so appealing, it grabs you from the beginning and never lets go. There is no pretension to realism, everything is designed within an inch of its life (and sometimes beyond), it remains cutting edge – no film has come close to mimicking its look and feel.
But none of that matters, even with the plot holes, the over reliance on hoary old tricks it remains just so damned entertaining it’s almost impossible not to love. I’ve possibly seen it more than any other film and it remains a joy each time, even when I’m aware of how much it is seeking to manipulate me. Luhrmann fell off the wagon afterwards with Australia, but then again it’s hard to think of anyone who could follow this and make such an impact. Like I said, it’s pretty much just perfect.