It's not challenging to classify the vast majority of movies one sees in a lifetime. Most fall neatly into their slots as soon as the lights come up in the theater. The Ghost Writer: Good. Meet the Fockers: Bad No Country for Old Men: Perfection. The Blind Side: Ugh.
There are also the great films that register strongly at first, but require a little time to register just how genuinely amazing they are. Election was like that. So was In Bruges.
Then there is the rarest of movies: those you can't make your mind up about one way or the other. And not as a small question of degrees, but rather as a violent see-sawing between brilliant success and colossal folly, often at the same time. Catch it under the perfect conditions and you're convinced your witnessing a masterpiece. Tilt it at the wrong angle and you must have been drunk when you decided it was anything but an unholy mess.
These movie anger you more than flat-out bad ones, but there is something in them that will never allow you to dismiss them entirely. These are usually ambitious films from major filmmakers that reach amazing heights but travel a path of reckless abandon to get there. For me Eyes Wide Shut is a film like that. Casino is another. So are AI, The Life Aquatic, and JFK.
And Moulin Rouge. Definitely, definitely Moulin Rouge.
The quintessential Moulin Rouge moment for me is at the climax when Nicole and Ewan are re-united in song. The grand tragic romance plays out and you hold your breath as the movie approaches one of those rare, transcendent moments. Of course Mr. Lurmann chooses exactly then to have John Leguizamo comes swinging in on a rope, dressed like a giant pair of testicles, screaming about "Twooooooth!" and suddenly it’s like someone just snapped me out of hypnosis. It’s as if Bogart said, “Here’s looking at you kid” and Bergman immediately turned and slipped on a banana peel.
So when The Film Experience decided to honor Rouge’s tenth anniversary by making it the subject of its Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, I felt the only honest way to represent my split personality toward the movie was to choose both a favorite and a least favorite shot from Baz's crazed kaleidoscope of a movie:
This gorgeous shot is taken from the Tango de Roxanne sequence which I consider the high point of the film. It's when Moulin Rouge is really firing on all cylinders – a perfect realization of the whole concept of the movie. The contemporary music is being deployed at the service of the story. It doesn’t feel the least bit gimmicky. The hyper cutting style feels entirely justified by the material. Best of all the story isn’t being pushed at us with the same aggression as the production design and the camerawork. Rather the plot is simply, confidently in place, so that the style can bring home the emotion.
And what style it is. There’s no denying that Rouge is top to bottom an amazing achievement. An example of ambition that it is seldom realized in commercial filmmaking. It’s enough to make you forgive a lot of stuff like, well, this:
Stop the merry-go-round. I feel sick.
I’ve chosen this as my least favorite shot, but really, anything from the cringe-a-thon that is the Like a Virgin number would do. I’ve tried numerous times to will myself into enjoying all of Moulin Rouge but various parts never fails to make me want to dive under a sofa. Even the reliably awesome Jim Broadbent can’t save this scene. I just feel embarrassed for him. It doesn’t help that, unlike the Tango de Roxanne, this scene feels completely unnecessary. Self indulgence taken to an insane extreme.
Strangely, I’ve never had a problem with the cutting style that alienated so many viewers upon its release. Unlike many films that cut for the sake of it, in attempt to create energy where there is none, Moulin Rouge made deliberate stylistic choices that are integrated into the fabric of the story. It works like gangbusters - for me anyway.
No, I think my problem is that the Lurhmann attacks the material with such gusto that he inevitably loses control as it shoots off like fireworks in every direction. I need, at some basic level, to believe the story, and Baz won't stop waving sparklers in my face every time I try.
The supporting actors in particular appear to have been encouraged to pitch their performances broader than broad rather than following the good example of the leads and play the material sincerely, leaving the style take care of the excess. Richard Roxburgh as the Duke manages to be wildly over-the-top even amidst the stylistic explosions. Likewise, it is borderline impossible for me to focus on anything else when Leguizamo is on screen. They could have recast his part with a car alarm and it would’ve been less distracting.
But don’t mind my carping. I’m just jealous. To enjoy the entire movie with the same fervor with which I love the selected moments that work for me must be a transporting experience like few others. I’m sure I’ll keep finding my way back to the Moulin Rouge looking for it.