Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Who knew? Nicole Kidman makes a perfect drag queen. As Satine, the queen bee diva whore in Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann’s fabulously reverential deconstruction of movie musicalness, Kidman is mesmerizing. Breathy and sinuous, precisely trussed up in her corsets and seamed stockings, her fiery red mane falling so provocatively about her unbelievably pale face, Satine is a vision, exactly what you want her to be.
By definition, of course, such an illusory object of desire is insubstantial and shifty, the kind of ideal girl you might design if you knew how to code CGI or were assigned to conjure the cover of next month’s Maxim magazine. As it happens, the film provides you with a stand-in observer and creator, the perfect lover for Satine. She’s the most popular courtesan and performer at the Club Moulin Rouge in turn-of-the-last-century Paris. He is our impoverished artist-narrator, Christian (Ewan McGregor), nearly as pretty and ethereal as she (the genders aren’t exactly fixed, if you’d rather they weren’t). The fact that Satine is dying of consumption from frame one is hardly incidental. The Moulin Rouge, of course—like all nightclubs, art, music, beauty, and entertainment—is about consuming and being consumed. Satine may be what you want but she’s not what she seems: she drags her exaggerated femininity, her perpetual availability, her openness to love and sex and abuse, for whoever will pay her. That is her perfection, her ability to disguise her own desires, or to be so open about them that they coincide with her client’s. As a performer, a goddess, a dream, Satine is yours.
The film opens with Christian pecking away at his ancient Underwood (demonstrating that he is an earnest writer), teary-eyed as he recalls his passion for a woman he will never possess completely and forever. His infinite sadness has nothing to do with their inability to consummate—for they do, throughout the film, often and joyfully—but because Satine is already dead as he spins his story. This detail—her death—makes his the purest and grandest love of all, for she will never not be the extraordinary Satine. She will always be the perfect drag queen, ever possible, never found out.
With regard to plot, then, Moulin Rouge isn’t really getting at new ideas, but reexamining old ones with an incredibly perceptive and impassioned eye. Luhrmann is a thorough showman, which you know already from his previous films, Strictly Ballroom (1992) and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), both wildly inventive refashionings of familiar genres (dance movies, Shakespeare movies). With Moulin Rouge, he has more money ($50 million), great production and art design, courtesy of his own company (Bazmark), and a collection of digitized sets (Satine lives in a building literally shaped like an elephant).
He’s come up with a marvelous array of mix-n-match pop tunes as soundtrack for this intoxicating neverland, including the hard-to-get Nirvana anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Valeria’s cover of “Rhythm of the Night,” and Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” redone by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink (another closet queen), produced by just too addictive Missy Elliot. In the rousing introduction to the Moulin Rouge, these numbers collide as the cancan girls flip their skirts, the avaricious club manager/emcee, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), all but twirls his mustache, and the patrons push and shove. It’s a whirling dervish of a party. “Here we are now, entertain us.” Cobain’s wry insight, coming (again and again) in the midst of an onslaught of fast cuts and swooping cameras, supersaturated colors, commotion of costumes, is here made sublime. Has any single line ever captured so completely the raison d’etre of the music-film-theater-tv-magazine-etc.-etc. industry, the thrilling tumult of imagination and need, and oh yes, consumption?
This combinatory rush of craft and rapture makes for an endless ache and appetite, excess and distress. You can never be satisfied at the Moulin Rouge, which makes it an apt metaphor for the hyper-yearning that characterizes current pop culture. In this context, Satine is indeed the consummate emblem of such yearning. When I first saw the film, I confess, I thought Kidman’s performance seemed thin, her singing voice less solid than McGregor’s. But I’ve changed my thinking, watching her on every talk show she could have found to be on, over the past week. Satine and Kidman are of an excessive, emblematic piece. Much like Satine, Kidman is now frighteningly transformed into the supreme trooper and elusive dream-girl combined. Look at what she has to deal with, the topic that every interviewer asks her about—the inevitably nasty divorce, miscarriage, rumors about her and his diverging sexual lives. Why would anyone put herself through such a barrage? Her response to the most painful and boring of questions—“How are you doing?”—is flawless. She tells inquisitors that she’s so happy to be promoting a film that’s all about exemplary love, that this process is actually helping her get through the divorce. Junkets and talk shows are helping someone get through a divorce? Now that is scary.
There’s more, and also less. In Moulin Rouge, the movie about exemplary love, the doomed Satine performs a Madonna-derived (but really, what pop-cultural moment is not Madonna-derived these days?) concoction of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl,” so you know where she’s coming from, or rather, what she’s going after. Christian’s back-story is equally uninspired: a British expatriate, he’s looking to make art in Montmarte, and he’s hired to write lyrics for a musical based on his thunderstriking inspiration, when he comes up with the lyrics for “The Sound of Music.” (That this particular musical—more particularly, “My Favorite Things”—is also an opening reference for Lars von Tier’s Dancer in the Dark, an even more extremely deconstruction of the genre, suggests that Julie Andrews, et. al. constitute the musical most in need of undoing.) The scene has him performing as if in a trance, for a group of revelers and play-makers headed up by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo, looking a little too much like the evil clown in Spawn, short, digitized, and garish). Lautrec is the device to get Christian together with Satine (whom the painter knows) and the occasional chorus (as in “commentating,” as in “Greek”), but as the latter, he is underused.
Moulin Rouge is at its best when it is doing musicals (or better, when it’s undoing them), when it is hysterical and strange and illogical, when it focuses not on inconsequential plot, but on abstractions, fantasies, and the exalted deceptions of love. And so, the deception within the deception is the thing: funded by the slimy Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh)—whom Satine must service and of whom Christian is jealous—the kids are putting on a show. Aptly named “Spectacular Spectacular,” it’s Bollywood meets Singin’ in the Rain. It features Satine as a distressed maiden, betrothed to a slimy Maharajah but in love with a poor sitar-player. Gee, wonder where that idea came from?
In between rehearsals, Satine and Christian engage in their “real love,” which means everyone and everything conspire to support their romance. The couple sings a rooftop duet called “Love Medley,” made of sappy snatches from Elton John and Paul McCartney. To mark the couple’s painful separation, the “Spectacular Spectacular” company performs a tango version of the Police’s “Roxanne.” Perhaps best of all, Zidler sings “Like a Virgin” to seduce the Duke: it’s made to look like a distraction, so the Duke won’t notice that Satine is otherwise occupied, but it’s easily the film’s most gloriously gay performance: Madonna drag.
You might call these numbers show-stopping, except that they are the show. As in most of the grand olden-days musicals, plot is a series of occasions to sing. The boy is a lovely, sensitive artist, fighting commerce but winning a big commercial moment at the same time. And the girl, well, she is the ultimate victim—of circumstance, finances, and lust, not to mention a terrible disease. She’s the cost that he has to pay for learning his most valuable lesson, and only partly a character in her own right. She’s the perfect drag queen, embodying the ruthless paradox of entertainment. She is the show that must go on and cannot.