Nostalgia in Moulin Rouge!

Baz Luhrmann’s theatrical ode to Paris’s turn-of-the-century Bohemian Revolution, Moulin Rouge!, can be viewed as a nostalgic plea for both a period in history and a classic cinematic narrative.

The film, as most of us know, is a sort of campy reimagining of big-name pop songs in the context of a seedy Parisian gentleman’s club. The way that Moulin Rouge! is shot (each frame displaying as much exaggerated opulence as possible) almost suggests self-mocking on behalf of Luhrmann, but also points to his yearning for the cinema that invented filmic cliché- for a time when dramatic gasps expressed unbridled shock and lingering stares certainly meant a budding romance. He crafts each set piece, costume, and character action with a precision that feels haphazard, often with dizzying results. This reminds the audience of a time when entertainment value was measured in the emotional response elicited by a work of theater, and is further enhanced, especially in the beginning, by frenzied dialogue that is senseless and lightning-fast. It is often in the immediately recognizable songs that the audience makes sense of the narrative.

Such infusion of the present with the past was obviously Luhrmann’s goal, as he says himself in the DVD commentary: “[the] whole stylistic premise has been to decode what the Moulin Rouge was to the audiences of 1899 and express that same thrill and excitement in a way to which contemporary movie-goers can relate.” The film is based on the operas La Traviata and La Boheme and strives to communicate high art to the MTV Generation (a challenge he also undertakes in 1996’s Romeo+Juliet). Such themes are a comment on the prevalent perception (and slight truth) that our generation cares nothing for the art of yesteryear, and is only concerned with what we see produced in our time. By facilitating a dialogue between the two, Luhrmann’s nostalgia for past forms of art successfully bridges them with current social philosophies.

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2 responses to “Nostalgia in Moulin Rouge!

  1. Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite films and I’ve always thought of it as a sort of an homage to the past art forms. I find it interesting that the film is nostalgic not only to the past form of entertainment but also to the emotional interaction between the art and audience. While this film contains the somewhat cheesy, cliche form of romance and overaction of actors – which almost reminds me of the slapsticks of Charlie Chaplin – that evoked emotional response to the audience in the past, I think it’s an evolved version of past cinema as it entertains the audience with its rich use of colors visually in the costumes, settings, and lightings – which, actually to think of it are, attributes of theatre. This movie is a great movie in that it combined many aspects of art to engage the audience to feel the emotional enthusiasm like the ones from the past.

  2. Also a great example of the classic cinematic portrayal of women, emphasizing, in Laura Mulvey’s terms, Satine’s “to-be-looked-at-ness,” as a means to freeze the narrative for mere contemplation.

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