Moulin Rouge! is a mixed bag. It’s an idea that looks good on paper, but looks horrendous in execution. It’s a film where it should have the ability to make all the right emotional pivots, but succumbs to an ostentation that exists in its final product, making this a hallmark for director Baz Lurhmann’s career. I appreciate him, in an odd way, for injecting a very strange version of romance in his films, one that, in Moulin Rouge!, is wonderfully cynical and melancholy. In almost all of his work, his maximalism overshadows some of the most interesting aspects of the films (the sole exception being Strictly Ballroom, his first feature): the post-modern comments on capitalism in William Shakespeare’s Romeo+ Juliet, the inherent frivolity of “freedom, beauty, truth, and love” in Moulin Rouge!, and the hollow decadence of the parties in The Great Gatsby. But everything wrong with him as a director can be distilled to one scene in the film: “El Tango de Roxanne”.
One can get the impression from watching a Baz Lurhmann film that his motto while directing is “bigger is better”. This applies to all aspects of production, from the costumes, to the music, to the cinematography, to the editing. Ah, the editing. Lurhmann’s aesthetic as a maximalist isn’t the same as someone like Michael Bay: even in Bay’s editing, there’s some semblance of spatial awareness and coherence. He can handle that big scale without allowing the audience to totally lose where they are in a scene.
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Lurhmann’s frantic aesthetic can assuredly be inspired by the music videos often exhibited on MTV: their cuts are quick and often made to the beat. Music is so infused to Lurhmann’s directing style that it’s pretty much inseparable. They pause sometimes (occasionally to leer or gaze, occasionally to pointedly act as Chekhov), but not for long. They use slow motion almost arbitrarily. They are catchy and, for the most part, shallow. Broad generalizations, certainly, but, nonetheless, true. This influence started to show towards the beginning of his contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet: the opening scene involving Benvolio and Tybalt utilizes hasty zooms, lightning fast shot/reverse shots, and a camera which focuses on objects in the most obvious way possible, completely devoid of subtlety or nuance. It’s supposed to look like a Mexican Standoff a la a spaghetti Western, but it looks like a mess instead.
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The scene that should ring most resonant in Moulin Rouge! fails to do so exactly because of this hyper-music video aesthetic. The scene (edited by Jill Bilcock) by design should be filled with fire, passion, anger, jealousy, and melancholy. But, though these emotions are hinted at, it’s never long enough for them to feel coherent. In the scene, Christian (Ewan McGregor) has agreed to allow Satine (Nicole Kidman) to spend the night with the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) so that Christian and his fellow bohemians can keep the original ending of their play (a metaphor for the love triangle in the film). (If you don’t remember, Satine is a courtesan.) But, jealousy ensues, Christian broods, and the Argentine (Jacek Koman) decides to play out this metaphor, and warning to “never fall in love with a prostitute” by having the dancers play out “El Tango de Roxanne”. As this is happening, Satine is having doubts whilst making her deal with the Duke. (I think it’s generally a good idea to avoid some of the subtext of this scene.)
Where to begin? “El Tango de Roxanne” is my favorite track that’s featured in the film. It’s melodramatic in a way that makes sense for the overall tone of the film. It’s operatic in its scale and feels dangerous and meaningful. But that kind of emotion is undermined entirely by how the scene is executed. From the moment the music starts to the end, there are 376 cuts in the sequence. The scene lasts almost six minutes precisely.
There’s an attempted rape in the scene, but I didn’t understand that until the twelfth time I tried to watch the film. Not because I’m dumb or anything, but because Lurhmann doesn’t actually give you enough chance to really process that. Because his cuts are so quick and his takes last less than a second, you are never given the opportunity to fully process what is occurring in the scene. His camera switches focus every half second to something else, and he always shoots in close-up, rarely ever giving the viewer the chance to digest the setting or the mise-en-scene in general. Before you can register what one image has and means, he cuts two three other things. The dramatic quality of the scene is both undercut and overplayed: you either don’t quite understand what’s going on in the scene or it feels so ham fisted that it gives the impression that the scene is poorly dealt with. The chase between the Duke and Satine is constantly interrupted by cutaways to the dancers, and the chase is so often shot in close-up, it often appears to be the detached heads of those characters without an understanding of what their actions are with regard to the frame.
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This kind of quick cutting is particularly harmful to the genre the film belongs in. Although there are cutaways to the dancers dancing, one isn’t given nearly enough to actually see the dancing. Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly understood how to shoot dancing: with full figures in the frame. Their logic essentially being, What’s the point of watching dance on film if you can’t see the dancer dancing? You’ll notice in something like “Moses Supposes” in Singin’ in the Rain that the camera movement never cuts off the feet and the camera seems to move with them. Sure, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are tap dancing, so getting their feet action is paramount, but their entire body is in the frame to showcase that it’s the body that performs, not only the feet. You can see the shapes that they make when they jump onto the desk or off of the chair. Dancing is about the body.
But you could never tell from “El Tango de Roxanne”. Lurhmann doesn’t linger on the dancers long enough to appreciate those shapes the bodies make, that artistry that the feet perform, the gorgeous sinews of the musculature. You get feet for a second, a dip for another, lots of faces, including McGregor’s brooding walkabout as well as Koman and Caroline O’Connor’s (Nini Legs-in-the-Air), and some instruments, and some musicians. It’s as if the editing has a mind of its own. You get a collage of images that never create a full or coherent picture of what’s going on.
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Strictly Ballroom was his first feature film, one that looks drastically different from the rest of his filmography. It’s restrained. The misused freneticism of editing is nowhere to be found. In a scene where Scott (Paul Mercutio) and Fran (Tara Morice) dance behind a red curtain to Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”, Lurhmann lets his camera gaze longingly and lovingly at the couple as they dance, with takes lasting up to fifteen seconds long. The passion and chemistry can be felt in that scene. It’s sultry. Crucial to the film’s turning point, he lets this scene unravel and steam up the screen. It’s everything that “El Tango de Roxanne” should be, but isn’t.
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And he does this with every film. One gets the impression that he is slowly (think glacial pace) learning to avoid this. Even in Moulin Rouge! during “Come What May”, he camera flows and dances with Kidman and McGregor to create a weightless feel. But that’s a single scene in a film with a myriad of messes. Gatsby was notable in a manner of speaking because, though his hyper kinetic style was still there, he was able to dial back that style a little bit, especially in scenes where it mattered the most. (Perhaps because the film had three – Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, and Jonathan Redmond – editors?) In the scene where Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Tom (Joel Edgerton) fight in the hotel room, Lurhmann carefully juxtaposes the claustrophobia of the room against its expansiveness. He shoots a part of the fight in extreme close-ups, but then pulls back to show the entire space.
Lurhmann has something to bring to the table, but until he understands the power of montage and how he’s misusing it, his films will always feel, at least partially, like an assault on the senses. There’s an incredible amount of spectacle in the feelings and passion to be mined from his work, but it remains buried underneath a lurid gaudiness that keeps the audience at a distance. He never really wants to engage the audience with the images. The problem is that Lurhmann is more interested in dancing at us and not with us.