Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Moulin Rouge!

I've participated in this series just once before (for Bring It On), but I've been sadly inactive since, despite several of my favourite films being covered. I knew I couldn't miss this one, though, because of my great passion for Moulin Rouge!.

I won't go on before I show what my favourite shot is, since I know I hate to be kept waiting:

One of the things that fascinates me most about Moulin Rouge! is its sense of intertextuality. I mean, I get caught up in the mad pacing and singing and just general energy of it all just like anyone else, but what always keeps the movie near the front of my mind is how it relates to other musicals.

I had an evening a few months back where I watched four or five of my favourite musicals in a day, and I realised at the end of Moulin Rouge! that its climax bore a remarkable resemblance to my favourite musical:

I suppose it's possible that this could have been a complete accident, but I give Luhrmann a lot more credit for this film than a lot of people (Oscar's Best Director snub, especially amongst all the film's other love, still stings), and I've been taught to assume that nothing is accidental. It seems even more unlikely when you see the other visual references Luhrmann makes to the classic '50s musical throughout his film.

Both of the films feature lovers, with the plot revolving around their romance. That's typical of the musical genre, of course, with the history of the backstage musical stretching back long before Singin' in the Rain. I'm more interested in the more nuanced connections which you can map from the first film onto the second. They both feature one lover deceiving another for their own good - Don convincing Kathy to sing for Lina, and Satine lying to Christian to make him leave and save his life. I could talk about the fascinating gender reversal that Moulin Rouge! gives us, since I think one of that film's crowning achievements is the confounding of sexual and gender-based norms. I get the feeling nobody wants to hear about that, though.

In the end, I do love all of Moulin Rouge!'s flashy shots, its hyper-kinetic editing and the constant experimentation with colour and other techniques. This shot has stuck with me, though. It may not be the most showy, although I do still love it from an aesthetic standpoint. It ties two of my favourite musicals (and films overall) to each other inextricably, and I love it for that. I definitely don't think Moulin Rouge! is Singin' in the Rain's equal, but both of them have brought me a lot of joy since I found them, and I love them for that.


  1. Actually I'd love to hear somebody talk about the reversal of sexual and gender norms, MD; that's something I always found fascinating about the film: for one thing, the message that a woman who "owns" her own sexuality will be punished for it, as both Satine and Nini are. The first time I saw the movie I reacted very strongly to Nini's "death" in the tango sequence, and resented Baz for not making it immediately clear if she was really dead or it was an act (and I'm not really sure why, just a deep discomfort I felt). But there's also the very clear gender reversal of Christian and Satine's relationship, with her being the more assertive/aggressive at first and him being the reluctant one (the Red Room); they switch roles in the Elephant Love Medley of pursuer and pursued, as though it was her example that provided him the lesson he needed; and throughout there's a nice "androgyny" to both of them that balances beautifully - she's the thinking, rational one, he's the emotional one, and they share that with each other. It's only when their relationship fractures and each one falls into gender cliches and proscribed patterns (the suffering, sacrificing woman and the angry, violent man) that things really go downhill (and I like to think this is deliberate on Baz's part, and not just me reading too much into things.)

  2. I also love gender switcheroos.

    nice write up. I am a huge fan of singin' in the rain but I hadn't actually thought of this moment as related but i love that you did.

    and "joy" is most definitely the most associative word one can possibly use to describe SINGIN' IN THE RAIN give or take "bliss"

  3. Lovely choice. Interesting that you saw this relation, makes me want to go watch it again and find all the musical references I can!

  4. Janice: Ugh. I'm sorry I never got around to answering you. It's pretty unlikely that you'll still be checking for comments, but I'll give it a go.

    There are dozens of moments in the movie where Luhrmann puts in throwaway shots of people behaving in ways completely opposed to usual gender conventions. A lot of them are fairly blink and you'll miss them because of Luhrmann's editing style, but I've always found the introduction to the Moulin Rouge particularly fascinating in its small details.

    You've pointed out much of the intricacy of Satine and Christian's relationship. And I have the same problem with the film, where I see a lot of ideas which I perceive as amazingly subversive, but it's hard to tell in the pastiche that Luhrmann has created. Another of the norms that it maintains is the "man as creator, woman as performer" idea. I go back and forth on whether Luhrmann is attempting to subvert all of our ideals, or if he's really just supporting them.

    One of my favourite parts of the movie is what you've pointed out with Christian and Satine's changing relationship. He's just so idealistic compared to her (sometimes) realism, and I just love that switch from convention. On the days where I'm in love with the film, I think that the film's narrative is amazingly attuned to the way societal pressures force us into typical gender roles, and Luhrmann is trying to deconstruct both gender and society. And then I have my more pessimistic days. :P

    That's not to say I don't still love it, but sometimes I do worry that it's just empty spectacle (although I do love some empty spectacle now and then). I think this opposition is actually one of the reasons I feel compelled to return to it so often. It's a lot more interesting than movies that give up all their secrets on first viewing.