With Australian director Baz Luhrmanns Moulin Rouge opening the 54th Cannes Film Festival on May 9, the clichés and coincidences are almost too precious to ignore.
The motion picture, which will do the cancan down the Croisette at the worlds most mediatized cinema fest, is a seemingly perfect choice to kick off an event that has as much mystique surrounding it as the famed dance hall that is its subject.
Moulin Rouge tells the story of a young poet named Christian, played by Ewan McGregor who leaves his family home to hone his talent among the other writers and artists of Montmartre an area which at the time, 1899, was brimming with a new brand of bohemian. Encountering Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), Christian spirals into a world of debauchery. Charged with penning a nightclub number, he in turn becomes smitten with the star of the show, Satin, played by Nicole Kidman. Other actors include Jim Broadbent, currently to be seen in the US in Bridget Jones Diary and Richard Roxburgh of Mission: Impossible 2.
Luhrmanns most famous film to date, William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet, shares many similarities with Moulin both are modern takes on time-honored tales told through music. The directors Strictly Ballroom, which marked his Cannes debut in 1992, was also a musical.
For a director whos clearly not shied away from toying with convention, the idea of setting a latter-day story in an historical landmark is not a revolutionary one. Nonetheless, purists may balk at this choice. Describing his vision, Luhrmann last year told American magazine Entertainment Weekly, Well, it looks like 1899, but its a totally contemporary world. The nightclub will be sort of like Studio 54, a Disneyland of sexuality. He added, Were reinventing the musical. Weve given it a post-modern form. Weve taken all the culture of the last 100 years, torn it up, and pieced it back together to make our own world.
The world hes torn up, however, is as much a globally recognized staple of French history as the Cannes setting in which it will have its debut. In 1889, Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler timed the opening of their Red Windmill club to coincide with the world fair to which Paris was playing host and which boasted a marvel of modern construction, the Eiffel Tower.
At the time, epitomizing the Belle Epoque, France was reveling between two wars and enjoying an industrial revolution. Cabarets were springing up left and right and the Lumière brothers had just introduced the first cinematograph, lending a heady atmosphere of pride and prosperity to this fin-de-siècle era. Art nouveau was on the rise and new styles melded together, allowing a world once considered eccentric to embrace and be embraced by aristocrats as well as the bourgeoisie. The music-hall became the place to see and be seen, listen to music and take in the guilty pleasures of half-naked women dancing among the japonisme-style paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec.
The area surrounding the Moulin Rouge was a melting pot of cultures and classes, feasts and frivolousness. And, then of course, there were, the chahuteuses or unruly girls, who not so much graced the Moulin stage as took it by storm, legs splayed to the famous cancan.
To this day, the Moulin Rouge enjoys a worldwide reputation as much for its audacity as for its place in French lore. Luhrmanns version of the club as audacious as anything presented at the fin-de-siècle however, tears down the history and rewrites it awash in music by present artists such as U2, Massive Attack, Beck and Fatboy Slim.
In choosing this film to open at Cannes, the festivals executive board has also broken with tradition to some extent. Its been a few years since a studio production in this case, from 20th Century Fox has had such a dubious honor. Many say this is an attempt on the part of the organizers to make friends with Hollywood, after what might have been perceived as years of snubbing.
And, yet, Cannes itself, like the famed music hall, is a place steeped in tradition it was once the exclusive playground of the worlds glitterati but this ambience has given way to a more open feel. Sure, invitations to parties are still worth their weight in gold and the stars continue to come, but marketing and commerce have taken some of the wind from the sails of pure artistry which lands Moulin Rouge right smack in a perfect berth. Its a Hollywood film, based on a legendary French landmark which, interestingly, has almost nothing intrinsically French about it.
Because Baz Luhrmann wanted to create his own vision, not a single frame was shot in real locations, and certainly not in France. Instead, some 20 sets were constructed on the Fox lot in his native Australia. But, despite being at home during shooting, Luhrmann saw his film plagued by mishaps and budget overruns. The studio even had to push the release date up to June 1, from an original Christmas slot. Finally, this change of timing made it possible for the feature to unveil in Cannes, a touch of serendipity thats put the director on pins and needles. Moulin Rouge didnt screen well according to US sources, and Luhrmann has told Variety hell be riding a wave of trepidation leading up to its release.
Hes reason to be somewhat fearful, the press on opening night in Cannes is eager to find fault no film in recent memory has wowed audiences on that famous Wednesday in May. Traditionalists and purists will complain the movie tinkers a bit too much with history and the French film industry will likely moan that it could have used a little more local color.
Hence, the paradox: the production was touted by Cannes fest president Gilles Jacob as the perfect mix of internationalism, tradition and entertainment to kick off the event, while the picture is actually a US take on a French theme, with American and British actors filmed in Australia.
Still, in a way, this spectacle has more to do with Cannes than is readily apparent. In January American actress-producer-director Jodie Foster accepted her appointment as president of the Cannes jury. Yet, a few weeks later, she had to bow out when she was offered the chance to replace Nicole Kidman on David Finchers The Panic Room. Kidman had been forced to drop out of that film due to an injury sustained while performing in Moulin Rouge.