Moulin Rouge | Dance | Theater as therapy | Music spotlight

In the music-Hall, the place to see and be seen
courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Moulin Rouge
by Nancy Tartaglione

Cannes opens with cancan...

With Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s “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 world’s 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.”
Luhrmann’s most famous film to date, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” shares many similarities with “Moulin” – both are modern takes on time-honored tales told through music. The director’s “Strictly Ballroom,” which marked his Cannes debut in 1992, was also a musical.
For a director who’s 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 it’s a totally contemporary world. The nightclub will be sort of like Studio 54, a Disneyland of sexuality.” He added, “We’re reinventing the musical. We’ve given it a post-modern form. We’ve taken all the culture of the last 100 years, torn it up, and pieced it back together to make our own world.”
The world he’s 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. Luhrmann’s 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 festival’s executive board has also broken with tradition to some extent. It’s 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 world’s 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. It’s 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 that’s put the director on pins and needles. “Moulin Rouge” didn’t screen well according to US sources, and Luhrmann has told Variety he’ll be riding a “wave of trepidation” leading up to its release.
He’s 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 Fincher’s “The Panic Room.” Kidman had been forced to drop out of that film due to an injury sustained while performing in “Moulin Rouge.”

Nicole kidmann as "Satin," the star of the show
courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox