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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Stage & Screen
In Defense of Decadence or Why I Hated Moulin Rouge
by Simone

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Moulin Rouge
the movie? I hated it. Make that, I hate it… for some reason this feeling doesn't go away by simply walking out of the theater or turning off the VCR. It is like a very bad mistake in choosing a lover. It takes longer to get over it than the encounter lasted in the first place.
     Moulin Rouge offends and outrages me. I've long been a lover of the most extreme decadence and this candy-coated-apple is completely void of the rotten center decadence demands. It is fare clean enough for a family outing with your Southern Baptist in-laws. The club Moulin Rouge that this appropriates its name from was so risqué that many of its acts would be not only X-rated, but probably banned in today's theaters. One famous act involved the star Tintine (the movie's staring character is named Satine) being dragged about the stage by her hair by her Apache lover. (For more information and pictures of Mistinguett--Tintine--this is for you).
     The first time around, 15 minutes in I turned it off, ejected it and watched the Queen's Jubilee instead. It took so many viewings to get through the whole thing, I lost count.
     Oddly enough, when I talk to others who also hated the movie, they often say the very same thing, "I turned it off after 15 minutes." So for the sake of scientific research, I rented the piece of crap again last night and timed it. Guess what happens 15 minutes in? Nicole Kidman lands in the spotlight dressed in a costume very much like one I wore for a tap dance recital when I was seven, and begins singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"--well now wait a minute, that might have been more like 12 minutes in. I think right around the true deadly quarter of an hour wasted point, she is flopping around a diamond heart and beginning her snort routine that from now on is going to be the clue that she is being sexy.
     Nicole Kidman in the role of star courtesan of the world's most notoriously decadent Parisian night club--is about as sexy as a fencepost. Kidman is sexy like Princess Di or Laura Bush. Sexy like the straight A's cheerleader in high school who went on to marry at the perfect age of 22.5, raise 2.5 perfect kids, live in a split-level, drive-a-mini-van-and-die-a-flawless-Methodist death. She is so stiff and unathletic that she was injured in one of her numbers (we don't wish injury on anyone of course, and especially not on such a pretty lady as Kidman… but pretty does not sexy make) and spent the rest of the movie on pain killers. They should have given her a lot more pain killers, if you ask me. In fact, why not just shoot her up with heroin? That would have made her faked-out tuberculosis much more convincing. Hey, you could even give her just a little too much at the end, thus making the death scene… oh now I'm getting way too carried away and decadent…. (Incidently, just so it's clear why Kidman's hooker is so unconvincing… a hooker does not hold power over a man simply by snorting and growling and lying around in garb…. The seduciton comes from the dynamic that Henry Miller calls "crossing the red line" where the woman becomes like a magnet, like "love over the radio" … what is truly erotic about prostitution is the power the woman has over the man by putting herself entirely into his hands--by taking his precious money to truly surrender to him for the time he's bought--and this subjugation is such seduction she ends up with all the power and control. Yummy.)

Much better choices for the role of Satine would have been Madonna or Angelina Jolie. The movie rips off Madonna anyway, they might as well have had her swinging from the rafters, too. I'm sure she would have played a much more convincing boudoir scene, at the very least. It may have been a funding stipulation that the huge majority of the cast be Australian. So far the only non-Aussi I've found is John Leguizamo (Toulouse-Lautrec) who was actually born in Bogotá Columbia. When I lived in Canada, the pressure for a percentage of Canadian content in everything printed, filmed, painted or photographed was intense. All Canada Council grants required at least a 10% Canadian content, and that could be fulfilled by using Canadian actors as well as in plot or setting. Perhaps the funders of this film had similar agendas. I always felt for Canadian artists having such restrictions. So much for freedom, truth and beauty, eh? (Those are the three principles our heroes were supposedly living and dying for in this film… another co-opt that inflamed my resentment. How dare such a namby pamby lot be calling on our counter-culture's raison d'etres?)

Several of the positive reviews that I read (a couple of them surprisingly from European media. Mostly German and English who've never made it a secret that they detest Paris and all she stands for.) begin with a disclaimer: "of course the historical background must be suspended in order to understand [sic] the movie." It is precisely this that I refuse to do. If this period hadn't been what it was--"The world has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years," said Charles Peguy of the Moulin Rouge era--I would be willing to suspend historical fact for pastiche… but that era was too rich to even consider over-looking. Here a rich history is replaced with pastiche of the worst kind. It is an example of a mistake many critics have been making for the last 20 years, confusing bad taste pastiche for postmodernism.
     When within a heartbeat of the beginning of Moulin Rouge, which is visually quite beautiful--a shot of a huge burlesque stage with side-pull curtains and flickering old-timey graphics--a burst of The Sound of Music is followed by Offenbach, rather than the other way around, we have been duly warned what we are in for. Whenever the original movie score is dominant the film begins to work. I use the word "dominant" because so much is going on at all times in the club scenes… not a bad thing since some of the numbers are wonderful, Bugsby Berkeley-like extravagant, and some of the editing quite brilliant. Unfortunately the "in your face" techniques get old fast. But the intercutting of "stolen" music is relentless and the stupidity of the film overall is epitomized when our virgin hero (VH) is singing to our stiff hooker (SH) in the boudoir scene, "You see, I've forgotten if they're gray or they're blue" (from Elton John's "This is Your Song"), VH is looking SH straight in the eye! Now that is a stroke of directorial genius, wouldn't you agree? What I can't understand here, is why no one mentioned how idiotic that was during the shoot. Can you imagine being on the set that day? Or being VH having to keep a straight face for that one? I imagine that there was quite a bit of editing on that scene trying to get out the background giggles. Maybe that's why the Oscar nomination for editing has come to Moulin Rouge. As I've already said, the editing was legitimately exceptional in places, but this scene may have thrown it over the top.
     And the awards. The fact that Moulin Rouge is up for no less than eight Academy Awards only ignites one's indignation all the more. I remember last summer, while looking through the recent releases at our local art video store (Missoula is lucky to have one of these, so don't make fun of the single tense here, ok?), that 2001 was a very thin year in terms of good new flicks. When wind of a film being made about the Moulin Rouge came our way, I thought this anemic year might have been edified! Not.
     Nevertheless, Moulin Rouge is up for the following awards: Best Actress (gag); Best Set Decoration (not so bad but the website's version is better); Best Editing (the same shot of women with their mouths unattractively gaping is used over and over… the old "here it comes again" cut); Best Costume Design (this is a joke when one compares the original costumes with the movie's--again check out this headdress worn by Mistinguett); Best Movie (oh god, say it ain't so), Best Art Direction (director Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin was responsible for this part and several other visual aspects of the film. Perhaps he should have given her input even more play as the visual dimension of the film is easily the best aspect overall); Best Cinematography (ho hum) and Best Makeup (sucked… not the runny turn-of-the-century decadence it should have been. Black kohl eyeliner running down faces, and circles of bright rouge on faces of men and women alike. Makeup had just been "discovered" by the Parisians, and no longer was "painting one's face" reserved for mimes and actors, it could be worn by anyone, countess and scullery maid alike. Makeup, the great leveler of beautification. But it was funky in those days. Lead-based. Cocteau's leading man (and lover) in La Belle et la bête nearly died from lead poisoning absorbed from his beastly, daily makeup session.)
     Turn-of-the-20th-century Paris was arguably one of the most artistically inspired times in Western history. This movie did not even resemble Paris (at any time!), did not get to the rot that is necessary core of cabarets decadence, did not portray bordello reality in the slightest, and was not a turn on for even two seconds. It doesn't deserve even one of those nominations, much less an Oscar. But if I absolutely had to pick one category of those up for the coveted prize that might deserve such accolades, I would choose the Achievement in Sound category. Some of the little sound bits, like swishes and clips when characters moved their heads or made gestures, were wonderful.
     What was also quite wonderful was the team of sidekicks, including John Leguizamo as the little guy painter Toulouse-Lautrec, and Matthew Whittet as the composer Eric Satie. This group of sidekicks were the only ones who seemed to have done their homework in terms of their characters and that incredible era.

But again, the researchers were lazy. Satie and Toulouse-Lautrec were hardly the only or even the most famous to have frequented the Moulin Rouge. The personalities who were likely to have passed through the doors of the Parisian cabarets included Osca Wilde, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Verlaine, Aubery Beardsley, Pablo Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, and of course, one of the greatest of all the "showgirls" of the caberet scene, Josephine Baker (In 1944, Baker actually starred in one of the early versions--there were at least 5--of the Moulin Rouge movies).
     Just imagine what an exciting film Moulin Rouge could have been had the cast included fewer camp, inapproprate musical scenes and more cameos of the phenomenal talents who frequented the place.
     Well, one can only imagine. I guess it is now that we reach for the (over stated in the film of course) absinthe. The only good thing that came from Moulin Rouge for this beleagered reveiwer was that it inspired a little site dedicated to the "truth" about that era. Long live (the real version of) Truth, Beauty and Freedom! Long live Rot and Decadence! Long live Paris, that lovely old whore.

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