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Moulin Rouge: Theatrical route to romance

SOME CALLED it exhilarating. Some found it disappointing. But nobody could ignore Baz Luhrmann's ``Moulin Rouge''. By its sheer variety of ideas, though not always original, its riot of colours, which often distracted and diverted attention, and its energetic motion and movement, usually digitilised in a way that took the soul out of the movie, the English-language Cannes International Film Festival (May 2001) opener pacified and mollycoddled critics into a state of arty restlessness. Which left little room for any clarity of view. Those vehemently opposed to this latest Luhrmann work found themselves tapping to the beat of the Cancan dancers as Nicole Kidman led them in a musical extravaganza, not seen in a while. Dancers in flesh and blood were lined up on the opening night outside the main screening venue on the French Riviera.

Later, at a party hosted by the movie's producer, Twentieth Century Fox, there was much cancanning as Kidman trooped in to a volley of mirth and music. And those who admired ``Moulin Rouge'' found themselves dissenting in degrees, albeit small.

The medley of characters and the mishmash of ideas, they thought, got the frames into a jumbled mess. There was little scope for emotions to take root in this melodramatic misadventure. Or, was this clearly how Luhrmann had intended it to be, and a casualty of this was acting, though Kidman manages to wriggle out of her tights to give a performance one can look back on, even take it home.

``Moulin Rouge'' - made by an Australian, produced by a big American house and set in the Paris of 1899 - helped Cannes to strike the right notes in the Festival that has been struggling to find a compromise between the arty and the crass commercial cinema (though I would much prefer to describe these two points as good and bad ) as it has been trying to rope in Hollywood on a bandwagon of European and Asian delicacies.

Of course, the Luhrmann creation took adequate care of Cannes' conflicting state of existence. It talks of a penniless Indian sitar player and a maharaja while throwing in an image or two of Ganesha and adding ``chuma chuma'' to the sound track. But was Bohemian Paris at that familiar with these things so essentially Indian.

A fellow French journalist felt that it was, as he added a little diffidently that France had by then colonised some parts of India. However, Luhrmann is not exactly into a time capsule. He has extrapolated from those oft-heard songs and dialogue of the past 20 years.

When Julie Andrews' ``The hills are alive with the sound of music'' are montaged together in a new setting, the meaning may change, but the fact remains that it is not entirely novel. Lines such as ``Diamonds are a girl's best friend'' and ``Love is a many splendoured thing, love lifts up where we belong, all you need is love'' though giving a certain elasticity to the period appear somewhat detrimental to the mood of the times.

Luhrmann's idea was not, in any case, to fetter himself and his film into a clockwork of hours, minutes and seconds. Rather, it was to revive the musical as a genre. ``I hope it will open the door to music-driven story in the cinema again'', the director averred.

Traditional musicals, where actors and actresses break into song and dance, once flourished on the Broadway. From the days of Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly to the 1960s and the 1970s films like ``The Sound of Music'', ``Mary Poppins'', ``Grease'', ``Cabaret'' and ``Jesus Christ Superstar'', this variety of celluloid held enormous appeal.

In the 1980s, it ran out of audiences when a string of misfires such as ``Annie'', ``Xandu'' and ``Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'' made financiers wary of taking on similar projects.

Even those made the other day - Woody Allen's ``Everyone Says I love You'' and Lars Von Trier's ``Dancer in the Dark'' - struck jarring notes. ``Moulin Rouge'', despite its limited novelty - deconstructive use of pop lyrics as dialogue - may not be an innovation that can work again. Musicals are quite expensive to make, and even when they succeed, there is a lot of reluctance to touch another.

``Moulin Rouge's'' showstoppers may well tip the scales in favour of its own success. Paris's most famous nightclub, Moulin Rouge, has as its star prostitute, Satine (Kidman), who along with her Bohemian friends convinces a wealthy duke through music and melody that he ought to produce their latest show.

He agrees, and the poor poet, Christian (played by Ewan McGregor), begins writing even as he woos Satine, who is both excited and frightened by the idea of love in a world of silly pretenses. But, did true love ever run a smooth course? The duke, obsessed with Satine, gets the Moulin Rouge owner, Zidler, to sign a deed that will make her his - exclusively.

Zidler and his motley crowd hope to turn the palace of sin into a temple of Bohemian art, and transform Satine into a real actress from a mere singing whore. Luhrmann, who vows to wow you with every shot of his in a kind of mesmeric magic, gets going in a spectacle of thunder and lightning, where the only rainbow happens to be the scenes between Satine and Christian.

The camera pauses, lingers - though not long enough - to let the lovers kiss and make love before the curtains part once again to take us into the mad world of Moulin Rouge. Somehow, the director passes over the mood for love. He does not care less about establishing this as he seems to be in a hurry to get back into the theatre of artifice, where anything real or emotional could upset the carefully orchestrated stage setting.

And ``Moulin Rouge'' could go hurtling over the digitally carved out Parisian rooftops. Yet, the movie, despite its warts and moles, got Cannes into a swinging mood for 12 days of sheer celebration.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated June 8 2001)

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