In a surpassingly lackluster year for the Hollywood studios, 2001 has at least seen Twentieth Century Fox release a few movies with first-rate production values, three of which have been covered extensively in the pages of Entertainment Design. Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes was in many ways a disappointment, but Rick Baker's chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan makeup design was an immense achievement. The Hughes Bros.' From Hell benefits from the chilling atmosphere whipped up by DP Peter Deming and from detailed production design by Martin Childs. But most impressive from a design and technology point of view was Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's musical Moulin Rouge, featuring Catherine Martin's beautiful, stylized designs of 1899 Paris.
Luhrmann and Martin, who is also the director's wife and whom everyone calls CM, were in New York in October, both to prepare for the arrival of their La Boheme production on Broadway in the spring, and to help get Fox's Oscar promotion for their film underway. (On December 5, the movie was named the year's best by the National Board of Review.) The studio arranged a series of promotional screenings of Moulin Rouge for select audiences, followed by Q&As with the director and designer. Fox publicist James Finn asked yours truly to moderate one of these events, which was certainly an honor, even though I had mixed feelings about the movie. Not from a design point of view, certainly: Martin's trompe l'oeil depiction of Toulouse-Lautrec's Paris, centered around the Montmartre nightclub of the title, is wildly inventive yet manages to evoke a century's worth of pop romantic feeling about the setting.
Reception before Moulin Rouge screening at the AMC Empire
Luhrmann's overactive shooting and editing strategies are less appealing to me—at times you want to put a stop to all the movement just to get more than a second's glimpse of Martin's sets and costumes (co-designed with Angus Strathie). Some of the musical choices, which range from "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to "Your Song" to "Like a Virgin," are a questionable, too.
But sitting at the AMC Empire Theatre on 42nd Street watching the screening, the movie came together for me better than it had on first viewing. When it slows down a bit after the frantic first half-hour, Moulin Rouge really is magnificent eye candy, and two more sincere and beautiful lead actors than Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor are hard to envision. However one responds to Luhrmann's style, at least it isn't generic.
I'd been told that the director was a guy with a couple of things to say, and that was certainly accurate. A planned half-hour Q&A session after the movie easily stretched to twice that length, and I doubt that anyone was bored. The audience—nearly a full house at a few hundred—was made up of USA 829 members, NYU and Fashion Institute of Technology students, and at least a few ED readers. Questions for Martin leaned heavily to the costume end of things, though someone did ask about the film's distinctive blend of full-scale, model, and digital sets. How true to period was the designer? Strenuously so in terms of fabric, much less so in terms of cut. How much did she spend? For sets and costumes, she probably had about a 10% chunk of the film's $50-million-plus budget.
Baz Luhrmann signing autographs after Q&A session
Luhrmann answered questions about getting rights for the movie's songs and working with the stars, but he mainly spoke to the aesthetic that has typified Moulin Rouge and his previous two films, Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Dubbed the "Red Curtain" style (and Moulin Rouge indeed opens and closes with the image of red theatre curtain), this approach emphasizes the theatricality of a film's setting and characters, and embraces anachronism to aid the viewer in connecting with the archetypes—doomed lovers, cruel benefactor--on display. Luhrmann showed every indication of being able to muse endlessly on the subject; there was a particularly charming solo discourse on whether the film's visual style is more appropriately termed "artificial reality" or "real artificiality."
The director said that he plans to leave behind the "Red Curtain" school of filmmaking in his next project, though it's yet to be determined what that will be. Making reference to the September 11 attacks, he echoed so many others in saying that "the world has changed"; he added that figuring out the best artistic response may take a while.
Twentieth Century Fox will re-release Moulin Rouge November 21 in select theatres.