FILMMAKERS.

image

BEHIND THE RED CURTAIN LIES A DIRECTOR DETERMINED TO MAKE YOU NOT THINK, BUT FEEL
[posted 08.14.2001]

PRINT | EMAIL THIS STORY

I’M ASHAMED TO ADMIT that, until a few months ago, I’d rather forgotten what Baz Luhrmann, the Aussie mastermind behind Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and, most recently, the musical spectacular Moulin Rouge, could do. More important — and, to my mind, improbable — I’d forgotten how much I liked it.

I don’t expect to make that mistake again.

It’s been nearly five years since his electrified William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet shot to the number one spot at the box office its opening weekend, propelled by the dollars of pre-teen Leo fans and My So-Called Life lovers eager to see Angela Chase play the balcony scene and kiss a boy even dreamier — and more emotive — than the blankly mysterious Jordan Catalano.

And in the four years since the doomed lovers left theaters, it’s been business as usual at the ticket window. Action-packed blockbusters and romantic-comedy pablum (both as ever-present and inevitable as death and taxes) have shared the marquee with a stream of teen-targeted dreck (Freddie Prinze Jr., I’m looking at you); edgy, violent comedies; and quiet and quirky character-driven indies.

But Baz Luhrmann…you don’t find films like his. And that’s more than a shame. Because this year he unleashed the most refreshing product to hit the big screen in recent memory. With its pop songs as narrative, its visual and emotional extravagance, and its unabashed zealousness and heart, Moulin Rouge is everything those ironic, talky, world-weary indies to which I otherwise gravitate are not. And I love Luhrmann for it.

He’s spent more than a decade creating new worlds (on both stage and screen) by re-imagining those we think we know. In a 1990 production of La Boheme for the Australian Opera, he made an oft-told story new again by hurling the time line forward more than a century to 1950s Paris. His 1992 film debut, Strictly Ballroom, was a sweet-tempered and wacky fairy tale — inspired by, of all things, Cold War oppression — about an ugly ducking and a rebellious dancer who — that’s right — fall in love.Ballroom won over the audience at Cannes and earned Luhrmann status as an exciting new talent. Asked about his motivations in a 1993 interview in the_ New York Times,_ Luhrmann told writer Peter Brunette that he believed the best drama was produced by artists in touch with the popular culture and that he felt “driven” to emulate the wide appeal of Shakespeare. His next film, of course, was William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

STAR-CROSSED CINEMA

Received at the time of its release as an audacious, brilliant failure, if you weigh the critical commentary onto one scale, Romeo + Juliet seems now, as viewed through Rouge-colored glasses, a million-dollar rehearsal for Luhrmann before he and his team set out to make their own love story spectacular. Like the aspiring author who copies another author’s book word for word so that the rhythm might seep into his own hand and mind, Luhrmann transferred the Bard’s tale to his own medium, offering the world a kind of video picture-book of the tragedy. The director was quick to emphasize (see the title) that the film’s screenplay was straight from Shakespeare’s text, but just how much of his verse actually made it to the screen is another matter.

The manner in which Luhrmann chose to portray the first “meeting” for the young lovers in that 1996 film is a perfect example:

Still reeling from a tab-dropping episode with Mercutio and “Queen Mab,” Romeo — dressed as a young knight — finds his way through the Capulets’ cacophonous and garish costume party to the quiet of the men’s room. There, through a gorgeous aqua aquarium, he spies Juliet (in the adjacent ladies’ room) for the first time. Luhrmann slyly shows us that their views of each other are distorted by the water and two layers of glass — don’t we always see what we want to see in those first exciting moments of infatuation? Her head shifting back and forth among the vibrantly colored fish, Juliet, stunningly costumed as an angel, by turns holds and ducks Romeo’s gaze for a few exquisite moments. Could anyone ask for a more beautiful reality to which to come down? By the time the Nurse pulls the young girl away, Romeo is, understandingly, smitten.

But here’s the rub: Luhrmann has created this intimate, tentative, breathtaking scene…and his two principals have yet to utter a word of Shakespeare’s language to each other. That’s the way in films by Baz. Big scenes and big moments carry the story, sweeping you along until the film’s end.

Juliet + Romeo

Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet and Strictly Ballroom comprise what Luhrmann calls his Red Curtain trilogy, films populated by easily recognizable characters and set in a heightened creative world that is at once familiar and exotic. Each Red Curtain film, Luhrmann explains on ClubMoulinRouge.com, “has a device which awakens the audience to the experience and the storyteller’s presence, encouraging them to be constantly aware that they are in fact watching a film.” In Ballroom the device is dance, in Romeo + Juliet it is Shakespeare’s verse and in Moulin Rouge characters break into song at the most dramatic moments.

The filmmaker’s artistic assessment aside, to the ordinary viewer it’s apparent that what really ties Luhrmann’s cinema trinity together is something far simpler: romantic, idealistic first (forever) love. It’s no accident that in taking on one of the Bard’s plays, he chose the benchmark of all such love stories. And his Moulin Rouge is even more extravagant in its focus on the emotion. “Love is a many-splendored thing,” young poet Christian proclaims more than once. “Love lifts us up where we belong — all you need is love!”

It’s what makes Luhrmann’s world go round.

AN ENGLISH ROMEO, CIRCA 1899

While the Moulin Rouge story line is generally borrowed from the myth of Orpheus, the young lad who journeyed to the underbelly and charmed it with his music, Luhrmann gives us a romantic lead strikingly similar to Romeo in his fixation on love. Christian’s a poet; we first glimpse Luhrmann’s Romeo writing verse in his journal as he bemoans being out of favor with his current fixation, Rosaline. Romeo’s “love” for her is shallow, as Father Lawrence tells him; Christian acknowledges, hungrily, that he’s not yet been in love. Neither young man has any idea of the trauma that awaits him when he really falls for a girl.

But we do. Even before a character tells us so, we understand that a romance such as Christian and Satine’s “always ends bad.” And Luhrmann wants it that way. He wants us to immediately understand and recognize the characters — a consumptive courtesan with a heart of gold; a penniless poet with his heart and ideals glowing on his sleeve; a rich dandy who thinks he can (or knows he must) buy love — so that we can jump right in. Never mind struggling to learn some new subtlety of the human experience; with Luhrmann, the film is the experience. He aims to illustrate the things we all already know — love, beauty, pain — but may have forgotten or stored away under intellectual labels. His Moulin Rouge is about fun and idealism and heartbreak and feeling.

And that’s where the actors come in. Lavish sets and Luhrmann’s (sometimes frustrating) penchant for quick edits are breathtaking and exhilarating in their place, but it’s the actors who anchor — and sell — his flights of fancy. In Romeo + Juliet it’s DiCaprio who reels us in just as the cartoonish depiction of the warring clans is growing tired. His pensive face fills the screen against a tinted, sunlit background — and suddenly the film has heart. And as Juliet Claire Danes exhibits a mournful gravity that makes her immediate marriage to Romeo seem not impulsive, but necessary; through her eyes, we see that Romeo is indeed the knight come to rescue her from her unhappy home.

Of course, DiCaprio, the screen embodiment of disenchanted youth, and Danes, who gained recognition playing an introspective teen wise beyond her years, were hardly playing against type as the doomed young lovers. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman took considerably greater risks when they signed on to sing, dance, emote and pratfall in a Luhrmann musical that no one seemed able to aptly describe. While Romeo and Juliet were the (largely) calm center in their film, with other characters handling the comic relief and Sword-toting swagger, in Moulin Rouge McGregor and particularly Kidman have to do it all.

As the courtesan Satine — reigning star of stage and bedroom — Kidman becomes a turn-of-the-19th-century pop star who rules as much through glamour and charm as through talent. (She has a sweet voice, but it’s not strong enough to have built her legend alone.) We first see her glamorously dangling from a swing above a sea of black-tie gentlemen; then, moments later, she’s all greed and multiple personalities as she plots how best to seduce a rich duke in the audience. She doesn’t quiet down until Christian — romance incarnate as played by McGregor — belts out Elton John’s Your Song — for her.

Satine, with all her masks and contradictory allegiances, is the more multi-faceted character. But McGregor has the task of making a puppy dog-like poet substantial enough to be worth throwing one’s world into tumult over. His nuanced performance as Christian is as near to three-dimensional as Luhrmann’s script with Craig Pearce (their longtime friendship and collaboration began, appropriately enough, when they performed together in Guys and Dolls) will allow. With his marvelous voice and expressive face, McGregor is all shiny optimism and youthful ideals as a young boy in love with love, but he also shows us why Christian pursues Satine so unabashedly: This is a boy who has yet to know the heartbreak of not always getting what he really wants.

All of which makes him a rather convincingly irresistible suitor for a young working girl who dreams of ‘flying away.’ (Luhrmann exhibits some overzealousness himself in his repeated comparisons of Satine to a caged bird: She tells a pet bird that someday she’ll take wing from the Moulin Rouge, she sings about doing so to herself, and, when her dreams are dashed anew, there’s that birdcage again, sharing the frame with a close-up of Satine’s devastated face.)

But Kidman and McGregor have to do much more than play romantic joy and angst, because their director won’t allow any single mood to linger for too long (or, often times, long enough). Moments after their first kiss, his leads are pogoing and mugging like fools in an impromptu song and dance for the duke. In the space of any five minutes, Moulin Rouge is a comedy, then a romance, then a tragedy.

MASS APPEAL

Luhrmann explained his desire to make movies that offered something for everyone in the 1993 Times interview with Brunette:

“I turned against my family when I first began creating…I wanted to make things that they could not understand, that said, ‘You are dumb. I am clever.’ I wanted to say, ‘Look, I’m working on Strindberg here.’ And now I think I’ve grown through that. I really want my mother to have a response to something that my cynical, complex, major intellectual friends also get a reading from.”

It’s an admirable ambition. The problem, however, is that in today’s world of satellite dishes and a channel for every niche, not everyone wants to sit through the somethings thrown in for everyone else…even when they’re delivered in as quick succession as Luhrmann does in his frenetic musical.

He sees the world in terms of moments — scenes, really — and he uses the same raw materials in his art. In Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann’s insistence on keeping us engaged in the process of watching a film extends not just to setting his story to modern pop songs but also to a zigzag visual style of quick edits and extreme close-ups. As a result, the viewer is often left at a frustrating distance, unable to linger over the breathtaking, lavish costumes and sets, the wonderful performances or the emotions they evoke.

Rapid-fire glimpses of the action may be true to how we experience a setting such as the Moulin Rouge in actuality, of course, but we look to film and literature — to storytellers — to craft a narrative. It’s what we humans are drawn to — it’s why we linger over past events, why we tune into series television, why we read chapter-long descriptions of events that last for mere moments. We’re forever looking inward and outward for meaning, for relationships between events or ideas. Shakespeare has lasted not because he wrote ancient blockbusters but because he so vividly and accurately expressed the intricacies of the human condition — so much so that people who’ve never read one of his plays unknowingly drop his phrases over coffee at the diner.

Luhrmann doesn’t achieve similar depths with his new bag of audiovisual tricks nearly as often as you’d like. But when he does — as when he transforms the Police hit Roxanne into a flashy but affecting tango of heartbreak and innocence lost, effectively cutting between scenes of Satine and the duke, a jealous Christian and an impromptu dance interpreting all of the above — Moulin Rouge becomes a mandatory, unforgettable film-going experience.

Luhrmann labored four years to make Moulin Rouge, his ultimate modern musical…and he says it’s the last of his films in the Red Curtain vein. Next he’ll do something entirely different — maybe a small, gritty character study. The idea, I admit, made me nervous at first — Baz making the kind of film so many others have brought us? — but then I remembered just who was doing the talking.

Let Luhrmann have his way with a more typical genre if he wants to…I’ve seen enough to believe that — come, ahem, what may — anything Baz Luhrmann creates will be delightfully, frustratingly, spectacularly just a little bit unlike anything else on the scene. I wish there were more filmmakers like him.

- - - - -

PRINT | EMAIL THIS STORY

samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.