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June 18th, 2001- Moulin Rouge
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Moulin Rouge, the new film directed by Baz Luhrmann (of Strictly Ballroom [1992] and Romeo and Juliet [1996), is now playing at the Galaxy 6, Century Park 7, Scotts Valley Cinemas, Green Valley Cinemas and the Riverfront Stadium Twin.  It's not a movie for everyone, just as Romeo and Juliet was not:  folks, especially baby boomers and post-baby boomers, complained about the frenetic cuts, the frantic and loud music, and the garish colors.  But for genXers, born and raised on MTV, and for those of us tired of the same old movie fare, and also for people who like the challenge of recognizing citations and subtexts, remixes and covers, this film is sheer delight.  Set in 1899 Paris, this musical movie is a story about a starving bohemian artist Christian (Ewan McGregor) who falls in with a group of Bohemian actors, playrights and songwriters-one of whom, played by John Leguizamo, is conveniently named Toulouse-Lautrec-and inadvertently writes a musical for the infamous Moulin Rouge music hall and cabaret.  His first ditty?  It's a catchy tune that begins:  "the hills are alive . . . with the sound of music"! He predictably falls in love with the star of the club, the courtesan Satine (played by Nicole Kidman), who has to court the Duke of Worcester so that he will finance the show and allow her to become a "real" actress, like Sarah Bernhardt.  Zidler, the owner of the cabaret (magnificently acted by Jim Broadbent), basically sells her to the Duke, while she and Christian fall in love.  And so it goes, the tragic plot of star-crossed love seasoned by the cynical edge of show business.

This is a daring and raucous tribute to musicals and to the popular music of the last half-century, with an accent on the last ten to twenty years.  If you know the songs and love them, it'll be extra fun.  If you know the musicals and catch the quotes, you'll feel oh-so clever.  You might even get the operatic references, and the references to other covers of famous songs and other adaptations of famous shows:  for example, there's a fabulous scene called "El Tango de Roxanne," which combines a deep and sinister remake of Sting's song "Roxanne" with choreography from Carlos Saura's movie version of Carmen.   Luhrmann treats the expression "tour de force" as a dare. My favorite scene-and the one that will turn off sedate movie goers with its manic cuts and pans-is the can can rendition of Lady Marmalade's famous song that is a hit in its most recent cover version by all the current ladies of "lite" soul.  The song turns into a medley of "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi," and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  And it works beautifully, giving new meaning to the word "hybridity." One of the things that makes one so happy about all this is that it's a musical that adapts the popular songs we already love, instead of trying to teach us some new and unfamiliar ones. 

Ok, lest I wax too enthusiastic (I loved this movie), one might have some complaints that McGregor and Kidman, singing the boy-girl duets themselves, are not quite up to the challenge of the great musical romantic couple.  But the point is not really the love story or the character sketches-it's the spectacle and it's the virtuosity of the director, it's the sheer joy and excitement and fun of pageantry, of cinematic and musical magic. 

And yet, behind all this fin-de-siècle spectacle lurks the shadow of empire:  the narrative of the play within the play features the exoticism of India and stages the sexual predation of the colonized other upon innocent femininity.  Toulouse-in spite of his illustrious name, is played as an exaggeratedly comic character and racially marked; there is a nameless Black man dressed in Moorish garb who assists the dancers and actors.  In short, the movie displays turn-of-the-century Orientalism in all its gaudy and colonial splendor.  In that it is being historically accurate; what I couldn't  tell was whether it was a critical perspective on the ideology that exoticized the colonial other and thereby erased the violence of the empire's colonial ventures. Maybe it is critical:  after all, there is a moral to the magnificent and extravagant, decadently staged story of decadence, that Moulin Rouge presents.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copywrite Carla Freccero