There will be critical arguments over Baz Luhrmann's musical Moulin Rouge, which took the Cannes Film Festival by storm last week. But whether it's merely flashy, showing off, over-busy, or simply stunning doesn't matter much for the moment. Rather than write a review of the picture, I would like to point out that this kind of film was one I had almost given up hope of ever seeing again. It's a musical. You might even call it "An Australian in Paris".
There are kids who go to the movies and who will recognise many of the songs in Moulin Rouge, who don't get the joke in that last line - not even if you explain that Luhrmann is Australian, and that the film's very theatrical Montmartre was all made on Australian sound stages. These are kids who've never seen An American in Paris and who don't know the scene on the misty quays in which Gene Kelly sings to Leslie Caron, "It's very clear - our love is here to stay". And then dances with her.
That was 50 years ago, even if the scene is as fresh and delicate as new roses. But Kelly is dead. The director, Vincente Minnelli, is dead. George and Ira Gershwin, who wrote that song, are dead. So is its scenarist, Alan Jay Lerner. The only person still alive is Leslie Caron and she will be 70 in July. I can remember a time when that seemed impossible - or illegal.
Anyone in the business of writing about film gets wistful enquiries from people as old as Leslie Caron - "Why don't they make those musicals anymore?" And you can explain that Kelly and Garland and Astaire are no more; that even Charisse, alive still, would sooner put her lovely legs up on a sofa than stretch them in front of a camera. You can say that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where so many of the best of them were made, is a sickly shadow of its former self. You can point out that the army of brilliant talents who helped with the musicals - the arrangers, choreographers and designers - have all gone, too.
But those answers never quite strike home. The real answer is simple but can sound banal. So you have to be adroit with it. You say something like: "Well, maybe we're too knowing now about the subject of those films."
And the veteran gets it immediately. "Love, you mean?" they say, as if you had both owned up to being in the same resistance movement. And that's why Moulin Rouge can get away with being a riot of stylishness because it trusts that grave simplicity. It finds it in the way Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman look at each other and the attractive, halting way in which they sing like amateurs. But why not? Amateurs do it out of love, after all.
Actually, it's not that simple. No matter how much you love the old musicals, you have to admit that they stuck to their formula: a boy- meets-girl storyline, they hit trouble, but it all works out in the end. Throw in about 10 numbers. Hire a couple of the great stars. Even for those who loved musicals, there was something painful in their rigid structures and those stilted 20 seconds in which you could feel a song coming on.
It's not chance, I think, that the best musicals are also pictures in which something about the story and the situation brings meaning and spectacle to the screen. …