It was only a matter of time before I began to discuss Moulin Rouge, and, as it turns out, that time was precisely 21 days. It is not enough to say that Moulin Rouge is my favorite movie in the entire history of cinema; I watch this movie for any occasion, including happiness, sadness, hunger, the birth of a sibling, acing a test, failing a test, the Yankees winning the World Series, Mets fans having to watch the Yankees win the World Series, and the deposition of dictatorships. I can not only recite the entire film verbatim; I can reenact it entirely on my own.
So, as you might imagine, I have watched Moulin Rouge a few times. And once you’ve watched a movie a few (or several hundred, whatever) times, your experience of it begins to change. For one thing, I no longer have to actually be listening to hear the dialogue. For another, I now notice symbolism Baz Luhrman himself probably overlooked, and I have come up with extensive, elaborate theories about them which would probably indicate to the average observer that I need to stop watching this movie. But, to a very great extent, I envy people who are watching Moulin Rouge for the first or second time. While part of the genius of the movie is that it still reaches me emotionally despite how well I know it, it is an inescapable truth that a good deal of the surprise, the intensity, is lost to me forever. It is a lot harder for a movie to sweep me off my feet (the way Moulin Rouge has the ability to) when I know it well enough to be able to jog alongside it at a comfortable pace.
There is one brief moment in the movie which is excepted from this phenomenon (if you haven’t seen the movie, [a] what the hell are you doing with your life? and [b] there will be some spoilers ahead). I am referring to Christian’s smile. It is the first night of the events of the film, and, in a Shakespearean case of mistaken identity, Satine, a courtesan and aspiring actress, is attempting to seduce Christian, a penniless writer whom she has mistaken for the Duke, who is to finance the Moulin Rouge’s upcoming show. It is a whirlwind, slapstick scene, filled with goofiness and glee. Christian, believing he is there to interview for the job of playwright, is attempting to create a poem on the spot while Satine, who is part of the bargain with the Duke, is seemingly having an orgasm on the floor from his words. The actors are clearly having a blast, the stakes are piled higher and higher in a flash of brilliant comic timing, and the intensity and discomfort is growing almost too great to bear until it is all cut through with a single, clear note of music.
Now, I am no great Elton John lover. I associate him with the “light rock” radio station my mother used to listen to in the car that somehow found the 20 innofensive songs from the ’90s and played them on an infinite loop. But thanks to this scene, “Your Song” will always have a special place in my musical heart. You have to look at the context of it – when I first saw this movie, I knew Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi. I barely knew the man could act, let alone sing, so that was part of the surprise. But, more than that, this was the first truly human moment in the movie. It was brilliant and fun and breathtaking up to this point, but more caught up in spectacle than in humanity. This scene in particular exacerbates that on purpose, in order to drive the point home, to emphasize the contrast and allow the pause of the music to feel like a deep breath.
But it doesn’t quite release you all the way, at first. When Christian begins to sing, there is still some tension, still some intensity in his face and discomfort in Satine’s. We are still reeling from the abrupt change in tone, not quite sure at the new motivations and actions of the characters and of the movie itself. But then, as he begins to sing, “now you’re in the world,” Christian’s face breaks into a smile, the warmest, loveliest, most reassuring smile you would swear you have ever seen. Once he smiles, it doesn’t matter that Satine is half naked or that the moon is apparently singing along or that the two of them fall in love in the space of a 3 minute song. You are swept up in it; you willingly allow yourself to be taken away by the moment. I can believe that Satine falls in love with Christian when she sees that smile, because I still fall in love with him every time I watch that movie.
There are a million reasons this movie works, and I will cheerfully debate any one of them at length with anyone willing to sit through the ramblings of a slightly obsessive fanatic. But for me, the best part of the entire movie remains that smile, that fantastic bit of joy and humanity which grounds this altogether brilliant film. Moulin Rouge is incredible in its ambition and scope, but it achieves true genius in its human core.