Moulin Rouge! (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #63

Truth — Beauty — Freedom — Love

Country: USA & Australia
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (L.A., USA)
UK Release: 7th September 2001
First Seen: DVD, 2002

Stars
Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut, The Hours)
Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
John Leguizamo (Super Mario Bros., Land of the Dead)
Jim Broadbent (Iris, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Richard Roxburgh (Mission: Impossible II, Van Helsing)

Director
Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Australia)

Screenwriters
Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, The Great Gatsby)
Craig Pearce (Romeo + Juliet, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud)

Music by
Craig Armstrong (Love Actually, The Great Gatsby)

The Story
Paris, 1899: while pitching a show to the owner of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, writer Christian falls for the venue’s leading lady, Satine. Despite her mutual attraction, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth in exchange for his investment in the cabaret. As preparations for the show continue, Christian and Satine’s love blossoms nonetheless. Will true love conquer commerce?

Our Heroes
Christian is just a poor, miserable poet living among Bohemians in turn-of-the-century Paris, until he meets and falls in love with Satine, the Moulin Rouge’s star act and courtesan.

Our Villain
Unfortunately for Christian, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth, a nasty piece of work who will have his way or have Christian killed.

Best Supporting Character
The Moulin Rouge’s exuberant owner, Harold Zidler, is prepared to essentially sell Satine for investment in his establishment. Which makes him sound like a horrible so-and-so, but actually he cares for her deeply.

Memorable Quote
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” — Christian

Memorable Scene
Zidler convinces Satine that she must tell Christian she doesn’t love him, to save his life from the murderous intentions of the Duke. As she leaves the Moulin Rouge to break Christian’s heart, Zidler delivers an emotional rendition of Queen’s The Show Must Go On.

Best Song
The film is packed with interesting reinterpretations of modern pop hits. Personally, I love a reimagined cover version, so picking just one is bloody tough. There are a couple of mash-ups that work particularly well: the big number when Christian & friends first arrive at the eponymous establishment, which crashes Lady Marmalade against Smells Like Teen Spirit; and the Elephant Love Medley, which wittily re-appropriates lyrics from a gaggle of love songs (eight, to be precise) into one number. However, the best of all may be a reimagining of the Police’s Roxanne as a dramatic dance number, El Tango de Roxanne.

Technical Wizardry
One of the most controversial aspects of what is a love-it-or-hate-it film anyway is its editing style. Eschewing the familiar trappings of Hollywood musicals, Luhrmann has the entire film shot (by Donald M. McAlpine) and edited (by Jill Bilcock) as if it were a modern music video. In total, there are just shy of 3,600 shots in the film (according to this analysis), which gives it an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just 2 seconds. For comparison, the mean ASL for US films released the same year was around 5 seconds. Even now, over a decade later, the ASL for English-language films sits at about 2.5 seconds.

Making of
It’s now quite well known that musicals need to contain a brand-new song to be eligible for the Best Song Oscar. Obviously this is normally relevant to adaptations of stage musicals, but naturally it applies to Moulin Rouge, too. The film’s one new song is Come What May, but it was ruled ineligible for the Oscar because it was actually written for Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, even though it wasn’t used in that film. The music arm of the Academy really are a tricky bunch.

Previously on…
Moulin Rouge is the third part of Baz Luhrmann’s thematically-linked Red Curtain Trilogy, following Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.

Awards
Nominated for the Palme d’Or
2 Oscars (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actress (Nicole Kidman), Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent), Music, Sound)
9 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
5 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards (Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 AFI nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Nicole Kidman), Supporting Actor (Richard Roxburgh))
3 World Soundtrack Awards (including Most Creative Use of Existing Material on a Soundtrack)
2 World Soundtrack Awards nominations (including Best Original Score of the Year Not Released on an Album)

What the Critics Said
“The time, the effort and the sweat are all up there on the screen in this opulent, no-holds-barred and multilayered movie. [It] is wrapped up in such an audacious mix of traditional and contemporary song — including David Bowie, Elton John, Madonna and Nirvana — and staged with a near-insane visual ambition, you will either fall in love with every camp flourish, or find yourself exhausted after 20 minutes. It’s a singular achievement either way.” — Andrew Collins, Radio Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“one of the great movie spectacles of this generation, an undertaking of vast scope made all the more fascinating by how it transforms commonplace undercurrents into rich sensations […] There is a sense that these concepts are simplified for the sake of basic comprehension, but the picture doesn’t so much strip them of complexities as it penetrates to the core of their meaning. That creates a scenario where the story simply observes the indulgences that manifest in the rhythms, the music, the dance moves, the vocals, the dialogue, the facial expressions and the daydreams that inhabit the characters. It seeks no more profound a purpose. Some find the implication startlingly straightforward in an endeavor where the technical achievements are such a subversive triumph, but I applaud it; how frequently has any ambitious Hollywood production been willing to see past the varnish of a formula and deal directly with the ideals[?]” — David M. Keyes, Cinemaphile

Verdict

These days there are plenty of musicals appearing on the big screen, and they’re often contending for the top gongs come awards season. This wasn’t the case back in 2001 — Moulin Rouge, divisive as it is, changed all that (it was the first musical nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in a decade, and the previous one was a Disney animation). Baz Luhrmann’s injection of modern MTV style gave the genre a kick up the arse, which isn’t necessarily to the taste of classic musical fans but certainly brought the genre renewed mainstream attention. Mixing in his theatrical storytelling, melodramatic emotions, and vibrant and extravagant costumes and sets, Luhrmann created a heady film designed to give modern audiences a sense of how visiting the Moulin Rouge would’ve felt in 1899 (well, it’s certainly not the literal experience!) It’s clearly not a film that meets all tastes, but if you’re on its wavelength then it’s magnificent.

The first half of Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series, The Get Down, was released on Friday, which is a neat coincidence.

#64 will be… a lot of fuss over very little.

Braveheart (1995)

2014 #87
Mel Gibson | 178 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BraveheartI figured I ran the risk of affecting the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum if I posted this review yesterday (because of course I have that kind of reach and influence), but after Mel Gibson’s historical(ly-dubious) epic wound up on my 2014 WDYMYHS list, it seemed too good an occasion to miss. So whether Scotland is about to become independent or not, here are my thoughts on a movie that hopefully didn’t actually influence anyone’s vote…

I say that because Braveheart, for thems that don’t know, is the Oscar-winning story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scot who led a rebellion against English rule and King Edward ‘Longshanks’ (Patrick McGoohan) at the end of the 13th Century. That much, at least, is true — I think. Y’see, Braveheart has been described as “the least accurate historical epic of all time”, its plot and subplots riddled with changes that go above and beyond the usual tweaks needed to make a coherent narrative out of a true-life tale. You don’t have to dig very hard on the internet to find those errors catalogued, so I’m going to set them aside: this is a movie, not a history lecture; and while I can completely understand the frustration its inaccuracies must provoke in those who’d rather see the truth on screen, it’s not as if rewriting the past is anything new for dramatists (to stick with Scottish examples, Macbeth — resplendent as it is with cold regicide and prophetic witchcraft — is based on history), and we can (should?) view it as an entertainment rather than an education.

Blue da-ba-deeJudged as that, Gibson’s three-hour (near as damn it) movie is a pleasingly traditional epic. Many big films these days are just long, but the story here has scope too — it’s about a war, essentially. And war means battles, which are a particular highlight. The standout is surely the famed Battle of Stirling Bridge — you know, the one where the Scots moon the English. Funny and all, but just a small part of a larger sequence. Gibson has the confidence to show the build-up to the fighting, outline the tactics that will be used, and only then launch into the fray. It’s this measured approach that makes it so effective, rather than the crash-bang-wallop straight-to-the-slaughter style of more recent movies. Due to its notoriety I’d assumed the aforementioned clash was the film’s climax, but it’s actually the centrepiece, pretty precisely in the middle of the film. Fortunately there’s enough else going on (because this isn’t actually An Action Movie) that it doesn’t make things feel lopsided.

A big plus comes courtesy of the era the film was made in. It’s the mid-’90s, still a few years away from “let’s use CGI for everything!”, so it was all done ‘for real’. That means great sets and location builds, stunning scenery that’s beautifully photographed, and swathes of extras in the battles. There’s something much more viscerally exciting about watching a few hundred men run at each for real than watching a few hundred thousand polygons do it. The downside of the aforementioned era is some occasionally dated direction, in particular at least one sequence that goes overboard with the slow-mo, but almost everything becomes dated with time — it’s not as bad as, say, Robin Hood with a mullet from Prince of Thieves.

Evil KingIt also doesn’t suffer from that film’s accent issues. Mel Gibson isn’t an American-Scot (or an Australian one), instead delivering an accent that sounds passable to this Englishman. He believed he was too old for the part, which may well be true, but when the rest of it is so inaccurate what does that matter? He’s a solid leading man and a commanding-enough presence. The supporting cast are an array of recognisable Celtish faces — including at least one Irishman playing a Scot and a Scot playing an Irishman — and, because they’re from our fair isles, of course they’re all brilliant. Best of all, however, is Patrick McGoohan. He makes for a fantastic Evil King, given some juicy lines that are even juicier thanks to his delivery. He may not be moustache-twirling-ly memorable like an Alan Rickman creation, but any scene is enlivened by his presence.

Interestingly, Braveheart’s Best Picture Oscar win was the only time it took that gong — no other award or critics group saw fit to deem it 1995’s best movie. So what’s wrong with it? Well, that’s hard to pin down precisely. It’s a little politically simplistic, with the Bad Oppressive English and the Good Honest Scots, including inventing all sorts of stuff to sway the arguments in both those directions. Plenty of old-fashioned epics do exactly the same thing, but I guess by the ’90s we were demanding a little more nuance. The same can be said of the characters — there’s nothing wrong, but aside from Gibson’s grandstanding speeches and McGoohan’s first-class villainy, the only really memorable turn is from the morally-troublesome camply homosexual prince — and that’s a whole can of representational worms.

Royally f**kedThen there’s that issue of historical accuracy. I know I said we should ignore it, but even if you accept fiction films shouldn’t be slavish history lessons (and not everyone does), how far can they ignore the facts? Often with such films the viewer assumes they’re true until someone says, “actually, I think you’ll find in reality…” Not so with Braveheart: you don’t have to know anything of Scottish history to guess that the face-to-face chats (and more, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) between Wallace and the future-Queen must be almost entirely poppycock (and, in fact, you can drop that “almost”).

How much that matters — indeed, how much any of those issues are a problem — will vary from one viewer to the next. For some, Braveheart goes beyond the pale. It does make for a rollickingly good story, though.

4 out of 5

Braveheart was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.