The American critic Stuart Klawans once wrote a book called Film Follies in which he traced the sorry fortunes of all those brave, foolish, ridiculously expensive epics – like Heaven's Gate (1982) and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) – that have achieved both glory and infamy for their mad, intractable excess.
Francis Ford Coppola is in many respects the founding father of the contemporary film folly. The film that broke his Zoetrope studio, One From the Heart (1982), was a technically sophisticated, conceptually jumbled, furiously busy yet emotionally distant attempt at making a musical for our time. All this can also be said of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, another grand folly.
No one can doubt Luhrmann's credentials as an auteur. In Moulin Rouge, he combines the fruity theatricality of Strictly Ballroom (1992) with the relentless, MTV-style pyrotechnics of Romeo + Juliet (1996). The result is an exhausting barrage of kaleidoscopic, gaudy visions and multi-layered song medleys. As a confection it is impressive, but it fatally lacks heart.
The story has a deliberately simple line. In a magical, fairy-tale version of Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, Christian (Ewan McGregor) falls in with the bohemian set gathered around Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). Christian's luck takes an even more extravagant turn when an encounter with the impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent) leads to his entanglement with the showgirl Satine (Nicole Kidman).
This has to be the campest film folly since the days of Erich von Stroheim (Queen Kelly, 1931) or Josef von Sternberg (The Scarlet Empress, 1934). The film's music hall ambience is centred on the third character in its central love triangle: the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), a beastly, twitching, meddling capitalist.
This air of camp reaches its crescendo in a performance of "Like a Virgin" led by Broadbent and Roxburgh, which will count as a highpoint for many viewers. On the whole, however, the movie's frenetic comedy is its weakest link – with Kidman particularly disadvantaged by the recourse to cartoonish pratfalls. (Polemical aside: it is a curious phenomenon in Australian film culture when those same critics who lampoon the childlike antics in Yahoo Serious' Mr Accident  applaud the far less dexterous slapstick in Moulin Rouge.)
As an extravagant exercise in style, Moulin Rouge sets its sights on single-handedly reviving the musical genre. Luhrmann cannily breaks down the standard division between story and song. This whirlpool of virtually non-stop musical performance freely acknowledges its many debts in fleeting homages to everything from Jean Renoir's French Cancan (1955) and Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) to the tango movies of Carlos Saura and current rap music videos. Even the vast screen tradition of Hindi musicals gets a (very) brief nod.
Moulin Rouge's big gamble, in making a modern musical, is to mainly use already known song material. All films that sample music history – whether outright musicals or stories about music-making, like Almost Famous (2000) – face the problem of taste. Nothing divides an audience more completely or irrationally than the musical preferences of its individual members. Each of us lives with a fierce, inner sense of which popular songs are authentic and which are phony.
Luhrmann's approach to this particular challenge is intriguing. In part, he sticks to a playlist formed in the dance clubs of the early '80s, a pronounced personal taste that was already evident in Strictly Ballroom: a glam-to-disco lineage that includes Marc Bolan, David Bowie and early Madonna.
Like Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (1998) – a modern musical that is looking and sounding better with every passing year – Moulin Rouge justifies this style choice with a valid aesthetic conceit: the Bohemian era, with its love of artifice and excess, can easily be mapped (at least in our imaginations) onto the glam revolution. (It's a pity, however, that Luhrmann does so little with Erik Satie and his phalanx of synthesisers.)
Once the focus shifts from the Bohemians to the lovers, however, Luhrmann goes full steam ahead for pop kitsch. His choices in this department will be disarming for some, alarming to others: "One Day I'll Fly Away", "Roxanne", "Your Song". The film strives on this plane for a difficult alchemy: trying to convert the uncool into the cool. At moments, it feels like only Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" and Celine Dion's love theme from Titanic (1997) are missing from this mix.
The coldness at the centre of Moulin Rouge cannot, however, be explained solely by reference to its song choices. Like Coppola in One From the Heart, Luhrmann likes to adopt a cosmic viewpoint – his camera, in a show of technical wizardry, constantly falling from the starry sky or rushing in from the city limits to frame his lovers on a roof or at the window of a lowly garret or lush apartment.
But the effort of all this elaborate staging is too heavy, too palpable. Luhrmann and his regular editor, Jill Bilcock, impose a furious pace on this "spectacular spectacular" (as Zidler likes to say). Just as no one song stays around for long before being layered into another, no single gesture, movement or rhythm is allowed to find its natural groove. This is the very antithesis of the Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen legacy in film musicals that Luhrmann professes to admire so much.
Because of the incessant combination of frantic physical movement and blazing montage, the film is all set design, but no real mise en scène. When finally the plot has to slow down and present the intimate interactions between Christian and Satine, it instantly goes flat. Often it feels like the film has only two modes: show-off long-shots and swooning close-ups. But the emotion always feels fake, forced.
The acting, too, comes in only two modes: star turns from Kidman and McGregor, and quirky, often tiresome eccentricities from everyone else. McGregor, however, makes a particularly strong impression; he registers as the one completely sincere, convincing element in the movie.
Luhrmann has already publicly reacted to the film's mixed reception by claiming that, positive or negative, all reaction to it is passionate. Yet, for me, passion is the central element that Moulin Rouge fails to arouse.
© Adrian Martin March 2001