Baz Luhrmann, director of Strictly Ballroom and Romeo+ Juliet seems with each film to be trying to outdo the absurdity and outrageousness of the last. If so, he’s going to have a hard time topping Moulin Rouge, which seems to me to go about as far as you can go with self-parody. He is reported to have sent a note to the cast saying: “I dare you to make me say you’ve gone too far,” and, whether that is true or not, he obviously never said it. In fact, this film is exhibit A for the proposition that he doesn’t recognize the concept of going too far. Making a movie for him means going as far as he can go and then waiting for the critical accolades to roll in. Critics and other sophisticates, that is, can be relied upon these days to applaud a picture that subverts convention—whether if is cinematic, musical or social convention, all of which Baz is expert at subverting— regardless of whether or not it has anything to say itself.
Moulin Rouge, it should be stipulated, has not. It is totally parasitic upon the movie and other conventions it is so earnestly sending up. In other words, it is a spectacularly awful movie, though few people can be got to say so. They’re all afraid of being accused of not getting the jokes. Doubtless there are a lot of jokes I didn’t get, but I got enough of them to see that they’re really all the same joke. The audience is set up to expect fin de siècle Paris and then slapped across the face with the wet fish of some contemporary pop cultural reference—Ewan McGregor bursting into song with “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” for example, or a chorus of waiters dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—which has no other purpose than to tell us: “It’s only a movie, silly.” Why that, all by itself, should be thought clever or witty is one of the wonders of our age which it will be the labor of future generations, no doubt, to puzzle over.
Luhrmann’s movies have always had operatic pretensions, but they are operas without music—or, rather, with post-modern music. That is, you have to know the music already before it makes any sense. The songs are alluded to rather than sung, and they make their point rather by the context in which they appear than by anything they themselves might have to say. The contentless nature of the music is stressed when Mr McGregor’s character at one point doesn’t bother singing at all but simply pronounces the titles of songs—“Love is a Many Splendored Thing” , “Love is All You Need” and so forth—out of the late-century repertoire of pop music. This is Luhrmann’s acknowledgment of what would have been obvious in any case, namely that the joke of making turn-of-the-century Parisians talk and act like brainless pop-music addicts of our own time has worn embarrassingly thin.
Even so, the part of the movie that is not trying to be a joke is worse than the part that is. Its attempt to identify revolutionary politics with “love” and sexual liberation is at least as much a cliché as the music or the movies that it so energetically sends up. At one level, like any camp classic, it knows this perfectly well. Neither sort of innocence, sexual or political, could possibly survive so much knowingness. And yet if Luhrmann can be said to believe anything, he genuinely does believe this. He just puts his belief in a jokey, ironic context so that no one might be tempted to think him earnest or naïve. Yet naïve is just what he turns out to be—naïve in believing that the past was just like the present, that taste can be endlessly mocked, that sex is the same thing as love, and that “love is all you need.” Even such glimpses as the film vouchsafes of Nicole Kidman’s technologically-enhanced alabaster flesh and ruby lips cannot make it worthwhile to sit through the work of so great a fool.