If You Can Dream It…: Surrealism in MOULIN ROUGE!

17 July 2011

In the first Surrealist Manifesto (Manifesto of Surrealism)—a written account of surrealism by a leading surrealist in 1924—, André Breton defines surrealism’s mission, in part, as “a means of reuniting so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in an absolute reality, a surreality.”  In visual form, surrealism often distorts objects we see every day and re-visions them in different form.  For example, The Elephant Celebes (1921) (pictured below) by Max Ernst is an oil painting re-visioning an elephant (there is much more to the painting, such as its statement on the post-WWI historical period it was created in, but, in this context, focus strictly on the re-visioning of the elephant itself).  All parts of the elephant are present in the painting, yet the organization of these parts is almost non sequitur, or absurd.  The Elephant Celebes is a surrealist painting because it bridges the conscious representation of an elephant with the unconscious to express the bond between the two.  To surrealists this juxtaposed, bonded, unfamiliar representation has the power to generate more emotion from people than a traditional representation of an elephant.  The goal of surrealist art, such The Elephant Celebes is to tap into the unconscious, or, as Sigmund Freud would put it, the dreamscape.  If able to resonate with peoples’ unconscious surrealism achieves am emotive power.

Basically, the surrealist movement counters the rational, categorical, logical take on reality.  To assume an elephant must be a large, grey animal with a relatively small tail in the back, large trunk in the front, two ivory tusks on either side of the trunk, a mouth below the trunk, large, floppy ears (among other attributes) is incorrect according to surrealist.  That description, and only that description, is the one society has conditioned people to take as “reality”; however, in our dreams we may see the elephant as something completely different, perhaps something more like The Elephant Celebes.  We know, in the dream state, what we see is an elephant even if it does not look like one in the traditional sense; therefore, from a surrealist perspective, the representation we dream is as real as the one we have been conditioned to accepts as “reality.”

Baz Luhrmann seems to know something about surrealism and the movement’s attempt to attain an emotive response from its audience because there are clear surrealist-rooted moments in his 2001 musical film Moulin  Rouge!  While Luhrmann does not depend entirely on surrealism in his film, he clearly explores the movement, heavily at times, specifically during scenes in which he needs the strongest emotional response from his audience.

One of the most important themes in Moulin Rouge! is love, but not just any love; the type of love so powerful it pulls two people together when society wants to keep them apart, and endures through all struggles and hardships life throws its way.  This rare and idolize type of love is the crux of the film, and the lovers are Satine (Nicole Kidman), a dying courtesan, and Christian (Ewan McGregor), a penniless writer, who meet in 1900 at the Moulin Rouge nightclub where she performs.

From start to finish Luhrmann’s film is a visual spectacle, in every sense of the word:  vibrant colors, absurdity, beautiful, seductive (gaze-able) women, camera and editing tricks, music and dancing, special effects; yet, perhaps most catching are the moments when reality, as we recognize it, is suspended and surreality takes over.  One of the
strongest examples of this shift and the emotive quality it has on the audience is when Christian serenades Satine with “Your Song” (Elton John) and the two first fall in love.  The song begins in her elephant suite, but, as they begin to dance, the two leap off the balcony and are guided, by shooting stars, up to the clouds above Paris.  It begins to rain on the couple, only the rain is not water; it is silver, shimmering glitter.  Despite the clouds, thousands of stars are out and twinkling with captivating brightness, helping the moon illuminate the couple.  The moon itself has a face (complete with moustache) and sings the harmony of “Your Song” as the couple frolic and dance across clouds.  Moreover, the buildings of Paris are visible, but of a considerably smaller size than they appear elsewhere in the film; they are, roughly, the same size as the couple.  Also, strikingly, the Eiffel Tower is present and, just as with the buildings, it is the same size as Christian and Satine.  However, the image does not seem to reflect the buildings and Eiffel Tower are smaller, but instead that the couple are in some way larger and on the same scale as these landmarks.  Lastly, the music, which originally was Christian singing a cappella, amplifies into a symphonic rendition.  At the song’s close, the lovers end their dance with a kiss and are instantly transported back inside the elephant suite where they began.

During this sequence the audience enters the lovers’ dreamscape and a surrealistic style takes over the filmmaking.  This surreality is not as visually jarring as The Elephant Celebes, but is nonetheless as surreal.  Their dance on the clouds is their bonding between the conscious and the unconscious minds.  The sequence represents a place outside the traditional confines of reality, yet still real; a place the imagination and fantasy mind recognizes and identifies with unconsciously; a place easier to feel a connection with than to rationalize a logical, linear understanding of.

In this scene between Christian and Satine Luhrmann needs to communicate to his audience the powerful, enduring love emerging between the two, so he uses the movement aiming at unconscious emotions.  Taking the surrealist approach in this sequence, Luhrmann targets his audience’s imagination as a way of pulling out emotions.  The audience’s perception of traditional reality is removed, forcing viewers to rely on emotions as understanding in the dream world.  The scene pulls out the feelings of enchantment, joy, mesmerisation, happiness, and, of course, love.  In Luhrmann’s bombastic style of filmmaking (The Red Curtain Trilogy) this emotional investment is necessary for Moulin Rouge! audiences to have; it is not enough the audience know or understand consciously the couple is in love, audiences must also experience and feel the love between the two from their unconscious as well.

It is a nice touch by Luhrmann to make Satine’s suite and elephant.  While there are probably several reasons he selected this design, one of them is likely the connection between the elephant and surrealism; The Elephant Celebes is a fairly popular surrealist piece of art and supports Luhrmann’s surrealist-rooted cinematic intentions and decisions.

This one sequence is, by far, not the only evidence of surrealism in Moulin Rouge!  In fact, there are surreal aspects in the entire film.  It is no surprise Moulin Rouge! is rooted in many of these surreal concepts because so many seem to compliment Luhrmann’s style of filmmaking (not only in this film but the entire Read Curtain Trilogy).  Luhrmann’s vibrant filmmaking often disregards traditional reality and continuity; therefore, partnering with
aspects of surrealism strengthens his style and overall success


~ by Kate Bellmore on 17/07/2011.

One Response to “If You Can Dream It…: Surrealism in MOULIN ROUGE!”

  1. The *reason* that a “surreal” elephant was “selected” is that there was a huge elephant in the garden of the Moulin Rouge!

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