Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
The dazzling Moulin Rouge injects new life into the movie musical
In turn-of-the-century Paris, the Moulin Rouge (Red Mill) nightclub stood as a rendezvous for bohemian types—artists, revolutionaries and expatriates seeking distraction from the drudgery of the straight life. A seedy dancehall internationally renowned for introducing the bawdy high-kicking can-can, the Moulin Rouge also offered a choice of many mistresses, but the one most in favor among the creative types was known affectionately as “The Green Fairie"—absinthe. For those of you who don’t know your boozes (or have never read an Anne Rice novel, for that matter), absinthe is the legendary wormwood-based spirit known for its hallucinogenic effects and therefore enjoyed as holding certain reliability as a surrogate muse. So thought Van Gogh, before he lopped off an ear as the muse whispered in it.
The spirit, a translucent chartreuse in color, looked not unlike the reanimating fluid used in that cheesy old horror flick, Re-Animator—and like the syringe-wielding mad doctor of that one, here director Baz Luhrmann has injected new life into a moribund genre, the movie musical.
Reviled by nearly everyone (except teenaged girls) for what he did to the Bard in 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann finally atones with the absolutely dazzling and intoxicating Moulin Rouge. Weaving together such seemingly disparate elements as the Orpheus myth and the play Camille, by Alexandre Dumas fils, Luhrmann sets up a slender narrative thread that introduces us to a young expatriate writer (Ewan MacGregor, with an intensity that at times recalls Malcolm McDowell at his Droogish best) lured by the Green Fairie through the doors of the Moulin Rouge and into the arms of the Dazzling Diamond Satine (Nicole Kidman), beautiful young courtesan and diva of the dive.
Of course, it’s love at first sight, but as with all epic love stories, love doesn’t come without its obstacles. In this case it’s her Svengali of a manager finagling in the wings of the nightclub with a dastardly duke, offering the favors of Satine in exchange for further financing of the club. Meanwhile, Satine soon finds herself asking, “Consumption be done about this bloody cough?”
It’s not the story that really fuels Moulin Rouge, though, it’s Luhrmann’s decadent deconstruction of the movie musical, which has raised the bar for all future attempts to revisit the form. Even now, purists are howling over the fact that instead of creating an original book for his piece (aside from the fact that, aside from a few signature tunes, the songs from musicals generally suck), Luhrmann has seemingly “settled” for using pre-existing pop songs to drive the show—to which I say, rubbish.
In real life, people use pop references as communicational shorthand. Also, it makes complete sense in a way: In targeting a generation weaned on the short-attention-span theater of Empty-Vee, why waste time trying to acclimate the audience to a new set of songs when the iconic pop hits of the past will serve perfectly fine?
The result is more than perfectly fine—at times it is inspired. The references are hilarious and knowing. Satine is introduced à la Marilyn, breathing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” only to segue seamlessly into Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Later, Madonna is hauled out again for a show-stopping set-piece, as the nightclub owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent) sings “Like a Virgin” to sell Satine to The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who all but twirls his mustache in horndog glee).
What Luhrmann has done here is to cannibalize pop culture of the past 35 years to distill a fever dream tapestry that utilizes songs and lyrics to serve as dialogue and motifs, charging from Bowie to Nirvana to Elton John to the Beatles without pausing for breath. It’s a move that melds the eXstasy of a 20th-century rave with the 19th-century absinthe-of-malice can-can.