Moulin Rouge / Shrek
- The princess and the courtesan
Television scriptwriter Dennis Potter was once asked why pop songs have so
much power in his narratives, and Potter said that's because he's never made
the mistake of confusing the song with the feelings they evoke in people.
The song may be a cheap construct of lazy rhymes and easy sentiment, but he
never forgets that the emotions they recall are often powerful and deep.
And you can see that distinction operate in his works--you see it in such
moments as the one in "Pennies from Heaven," when the entire front of
Jimmy's Diner slides aside and Accordion Man steps out to dance the title
song, pennies literally raining from the sky. The feelings of this wretched
man, inarticulate and perhaps retarded, the tremendous amount of yearning
blocked up inside for years, suddenly expressed in dance and song--and as
quickly (and cruelly) sealed up again--that is Potter's dark magic.
Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" is Dennis Potter run through an
osterizer--everything has been so thoroughly chopped and liquefied you
despair of finding anything recognizable, much less emotionally powerful. I
remember Ewan McGregor as the hapless writer Christian, arriving at Bohemian
Paris; I remember John Leguizamo playing Toulouse Lautrec as a swishingly
lisping dwarf, leading Christian to the Moulin Rouge to write a show there.
I even remember Jim Broadbent as club owner Harold Zidler and Nicole Kidman
as star courtesan Satine trying to ape Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli's "Money"
number in "Cabaret" (and not doing a very good job of it), scheming to find
money to fund their show. The rest of the film's first half was lost to a
migraine-inducing swirl of flashing lights, leering faces, and throbbing
disco beat. And underwear. I remember a whole lot of ladies' underwear in
"Moulin Rouge" of many different colors, most of them being thrust at the
Hey, I'm as big a fan of vulgarity and camp as the next man--I like Jim
Carrey, I like Pedro Almodovar, I even like ladies' underwear; "Moulin
Rouge" is like an entire cast of Carreys bingeing on underwear while
directed by an Almodovar on speed. But after a while, you either live up to
the promise of chaotic incoherence by giving us even more chaos and even
more incoherence, in a self-destructive orgy of cinematic excess, or you
don't try for excess in the first place and give us an engaging narrative
instead. There's something unbelievably stupid about a movie that does its
level best to whack your head silly with its abrasiveness, then asks you to
settle down and weep over its cheaply written love story. I've met whores
who showed more finesse pulling my pants off.
And all this talk about Luhrmann being "innovative," a "cinematic
visionary." Hah. He's a conservative at heart, a mincing, wincing
courtesan of a filmmaker who uses flash and filigree to wow his audience and
pick their pockets (though I've encountered pickpockets with more
dexterity?). Love for Luhrmann revolves on the question of whether or not
Satine (unfortunate name, reminds me of the cracker) sleeps with the wealthy
Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who has agreed to finance their show, or whether she
stays faithful to poor Christian. At one point she has to make Christian
believe she doesn't love him--which is an extremely old plot device, used in
as recent a picture as Carlitos Siguion Reyna's "Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa
Akin" (Call Me Joy) backwards, to Greta Garbo's film "Camille;" Verdi's
opera "La Traviata;" all the way back to Alexander Dumas' novel "La dame aux
camelias." This is a storyline that has made the rounds several times over,
and should have been retired long, long ago.
And the money McGregor throws at Kidman's face--always with the money thrown
with contempt at the whore's face. If all the money from all the
adaptations and versions and variations in the world had been thrown in my
face, I would have had enough to open a nightclub myself?
I know opera uses old and simple storylines, but at least opera has all that
beautiful music; Luhrmann, who's directed a few operas, knows that his
"Moulin Rouge" lives or dies not by its story or dialogue but its visual
music. Simply put, if you like Lurmann's unsubtle style, you're in for a
fine time; if you don't like his style, the rest of the film is like
visiting one of the lower circles of Hell for the next hour and a half?
The film isn't a total botch. I liked Zidler and the Duke fawning over each
other to the tune of Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and I liked the bittersweet
tone of Sting's "Roxanne" suggesting Christian's despair (though as usual
Luhrmann makes hash of everything that accompanies the song with his
overacrobatic camerawork). I thought McGregor made for a persuasively
ardent lover while Kidman, though beautiful, seemed oddly inexpressive, as
if she were afraid to crack the thick cake of makeup applied to her face.
But these are minor virtues in the face of the film's overwhelming flaws?I
do recommend "Moulin Rouge," but strictly for hardcore masochists--the rest
of us are better off better bringing flak jackets, steel helmets, and groin
protectors to the theater...
...and I'd like to add that Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jemson's "Shrek" is a
perfect example of everything "Moulin Rouge" fails to achieve, and leave it
No? May I add that it's possibly the best Hollywood film I've seen all year
(not that the year has been brimming with good movies), and one of the best
American animated features I've ever seen in the past few years?
No? You mean I have to explain why I think the film is terrific?? Oh,
First of all, it has a SCRIPT--one about an Ogre named Shrek (voice of Mike
Myers) sent by Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) to rescue Princess Fiona
(Cameron Diaz). And it deals with stories and fables, some of which are as
old or even older than "La dames aux camelias" ("The Gingerbread Man;"
"Pinocchio") but with a FRESH SPIN (the Gingerbread Man yells a defiant "Eat
me!" after Lord Farquaad has him dipped in milk, while Geppetto sells
Pinocchio off for a few shillings).
It's not loud--okay, it's often loud, but not RELENTLESSLY loud. There are
quiet moments and when these happen, recognizably human emotions peek
through--as when Shrek admits to Donkey that he's standoffish because people
fear him (and he's learned to pre-empt their fear), or when Princess Fiona
learns the hard way that all her illusions, unlike fairy tales, are never
going to come true.
And it's FUNNY--Eddie Murphy as the Donkey, Shrek's loyal sidekick, has a
nonstop monologue running throughout the entire film that's a marvel of
consistently inventive humor; Lithgow's Lord Farquaad (whose surname only
needs a consonant removed to be an obscene slur) is a bundle of vaulting
ambition and stumbling insecurities, packed into a frame barely three feet
high. Shrek himself, as Mike Myers plays him, is consistently irritable,
crude, and likable; and Cameron Diaz's Princess Fiona matches him, crudity
for endearing crudity.
Not all the jokes are gross fart jokes--believe it or not, there's real wit
working here, as when Shrek and Donkey first enter Farquaad's extremely tall
castle ("making up for a shortcoming elsewhere," observes Shrek) and the
inner courtyard is a picture-perfect copy of Disneyland's Main Street (down
to the overpriced wares sold in "Ye Olde Accessorie Shoppe"). THIS is a
film that bears watching again and again--not only because Adamson and
Jemson and their writers (Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger
S.H. Schulman) don't shove every frame of film down your throat the way
"Moulin Rouge" does, but because it's a genuinely moving, genuinely romantic
little love story with a great big green ogre in the middle of it.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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