Elegant title, ain’t it?
I warn you that this will be an angry rant at times, but stick with me here. I promise this has nothing to do with Leo hate or any other such petty nitpicking.
This is both a review of Titanic and Moulin Rouge!; an endorsement of the latter, and an argument that, hopefully, will change how some people view the former. As always, you are free to draw your own conclusions.
The plot is virtually the same between these two movies; a boy (too idealistic to yet be called a man) on one rung of the social ladder meets a girl on a different rung of said ladder. They fall in love while a cartoonishly evil and jealous rich man tries his best to drive them apart, wanting the lady all to himself. The only real difference is that one story takes place in a performance venue and the other takes place on a boat…that sinks…
Both stories are a pretty basic retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but Titanic seems to get a pass and even praise from a lot of people because of history. Never mind that it shows a palpable contempt for history; for just one example, look at the portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch. Just compare the man he was to the man they showed on screen.
Also never mind that if someone tried to make a tragic, fictionalized romance that takes place in, say, the Twin Towers, I guarantee you that the public would not stand for it.
I guess time heals all wounds…and makes fools of us all.
Titanic annoys me on multiple levels (nonsensical plot things, like why Cal and presumably the other contemptible rich snobs would assume that a bribe automatically gets them a seat on a lifeboat, when everyone could very well be dead in the next hour), but a lot of it has to do with, again, historical accuracy.
To his credit, James Cameron never pretended this was going to be a documentary, but it’s still frustrating when the real-world compelling and heroic characters on the RMS Titanic seem to speed by in the background, ignored in favor of the boring, tension-less love story. And fictionalized or not, there is something insulting about painting virtually all of the rich people on the ship as snooty, misanthropic assholes and virtually all of the poor people as innocent lambs to be sacrificed and trod on by said rich people, all for the sake of petty drama.
Why do you even need to stir up drama, Cameron? Is the boat rapidly sinking into the icy water not enough?
Way to objectify both groups and make them so pointlessly one-dimensional.
Some third-class passengers did get stuck below deck and drowned, but that had more to do with the ship being massive and not having enough translators and staff to direct people to relative safety. And there were areas that separated first-class and third-class passengers, but that didn’t mean they were restricted from coming above deck.
In the movie, they are literally locked behind a grate, as if even the sailors decided that their lives were worthless. To which I ask: what point does that serve? We know half of these people will die regardless, and the real tension should be coming from the sinking ship. The plot does not need stupid, douchey people doing counter-intuitive things to both the lovers and the poor people.
Now, if we got a scene of Cal or some other evil person bribing the workers to seal off the lower class areas so that he and his rich friends could snag all of the lifeboats, maybe that would have made some sense. It would still be utterly batshit stupid and pointless, but it might have been better than no explanation at all.
Titanic hyper-focuses on two fictional characters, Jack and Rose, and sets everything up like it’s a James Bond-esque scheme to separate them. As Billy Zane’s henchman watches over a hand-cuffed Jack, he even says, “You know, I think this ship may sink.”
As if he set it up that way. As if he doesn’t give a shit about any of the other passengers (which isn’t that surprising, I guess), or has any concern that he himself will make it out okay.
Seriously, think about how ridiculous that is. Regardless of the context, that’s not just laughably baffling; it’s straight-up insulting.
The characters are so by-the-numbers that every other line out of Jack’s mouth is just reaffirming his one-dimensional character traits. You could just replace everything with, “I’m a free-spirited poor artist.”
As for Rose, I would empathize more with being trapped in a fancy-prison-but-prison-nonetheless if the ship weren’t about to sink into the sea. When the audience knows a major plot element so far in advance, it’s hard to get really invested in the vaguely-explained problems of a white-bread priviliged rich girl.
Contrast this with Moulin Rouge. We know from the offset that Satine is going to die by the end, making this a tragic love story, but we don’t know at first how, if at all, this will affect the Moulin Rouge or its other performers. For all we know, nothing more important is going on in the background.
Romeo and Juliet kept the settings intimate and the extraneous characters limited; it didn’t go into intricate detail about why their families hate each other. That makes the relegating of other characters to the background less problematic and distracting. They only come in when something they do is going to affect Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, and you can easily accept that as a viewer without thought or question.
You can make a good story where a romance is the main focus, but seeing as our quest for “One True Love” doesn’t tend to take priority in real life, the storyteller must tread a bit cautiously.
The only things I praise Titanic for are its visuals and unique perspective. Because of limited technology, it was near impossible to show a realistic and terrifying sinking scene, so a lot of films and documentaries had to work around that limitation. That had its strengths because you could focus more on story and character, but it was lacking an important piece of the puzzle; something to make the story more whole.
Titanic goes into enormous detail, both pre and post sinking, and while I admire the fantastic visuals, it’s the scene where the Titanic recovery team is going over the sinking that really impresses me. Bill Paxton’s buddy, Mr. Skeptic Smiley Shirt seen below, goes over the technical side of how the ship sank, complete with a cg model on a computer and emotional detachment bordering on disrespect, and after a somewhat haunted look while observing the presentation, old Rose remarks that being aboard the ship during that moment was quite different.
That is great build-up and foreshadowing, and it preps both the audience and the recovery crew in-story for the notion that there is a difference between understanding how it happened and respecting, truly appreciating, what the experience must have been like for the poor souls trapped onboard. The looks on that dismissive guy’s face as Rose progresses through the story are truly satisfying, but not in a vindictive way. Sure, he was being kind of a dick earlier, but not irredeemably so. Instead, you feel glad that he’s been humbled.
It is said that history must be understood if it’s not to be repeated, but sadly, the more distant in time we are from certain events, people will slowly but surely lose connection and fail to appreciate them in their entirety.
But as I said, the build up is great, and so are the moments when Cameron actually focuses on someone other than Jack, Rose, or Rose’s awful family. Like the ship’s officers actually being competent and efficient, rather than blindly panicking, when trying to avoid the ice burg.
Or Molly Brown. Note that she is not “old money”, so she’s pretty much the only nice one.
Everything else is unintentionally hilarious at best and insulting at worst.
Back to Moulin Rouge!, a lot of people complain that the style and cinematography are really jarring, and that’s a fair opinion. If it’s not your taste, that’s fine, but I will tell you that it is that way for a reason. You could probably guess that yourself, but can you guess what the reason is?
The story is being told from the point of view of Christian, a young, naïve boy on a cusp of manhood who admits, “(he’s) never been in love.” He sees the world, particularly the Moulin Rouge itself, like it’s a candy store ripe with opportunity, and the abundance of color and quick cuts in time with the music serve to highlight this view.
The good is emphasized and the bad/seedy/less savory is glanced over with explosive color, quick cutaways, and fast-paced musical numbers.
“But the songs are so distracting!” you cry.
Look, hypothetical person I’m talking at: Baz Luhrmann was trying to convey to us, a modern audience, what the Moulin Rouge would have looked and sounded like to the people of the time: new, exciting, and bombastic. And jukebox musicals are a thing, so it’s not that weird in the grand scheme of things.
If you don’t like that, cool. It wasn’t really my thing at first either.
“But Moulin Rouge takes place at a real place, just like Titanic!”
Yeah, it’s an iconic location, but a) it’s a musical, and b) the story doesn’t follow a real-world tragedy, thereby overshadowing the real event in the greater public consciousness. People can think of the Moulin Rouge the actual place without automatically saying, “Oh yeah! That’s that one place from that one movie!”
Pearl Harbor didn’t overshadow the real event in our minds, but that was because Pearl Harbor is still in recent memory (and a sore spot for a lot of still-living people), and Michael Bay is an incompetent hack.
“But the characters are so stock and bland!”
Well, they can’t be any more so than they were in Titanic, but hey, young Ewan McGregor just isn’t as hot and marketable as young Leonardo DiCaprio. I get that; his fangirls were pretty rabid for a while.
But on that statement, I have to really disagree. Christian is young and naïve, while Satine is experienced and somewhat jaded. Satine has to choose between her dream of working her way up to being a legit performer at a legit establishment, and committing to Christian. As the film goes on, we learn that the consequences of choosing the latter may put her friends at the Moulin Rouge, as well as Christian himself, in danger. The threats to her and those she cares about are clear, as well as understandable.
By contrast, how old is Rose? Could she and Jack not just elope when the ship made port?
What I don’t understand is why Rose feels she owes anything to her abusive, manipulating mother, who states at one point that all she really cares about is her material goods and her reputation. The scene only serves to make us hate her more, much like the Cal table-flipping scene, but why did we need to hate her more?
More importantly, what is the real harm if Rose chooses Jack over Cal? Sure, admittedly he’s shown to be a violent asshole, but as long as Rose is of age and the police still exist in this universe, I’m not seeing any grand implied threat. This happens while she’s still under his and her mother’s thumbs.
And what connection, if any, keeps Rose somewhat loyal to her mother? We don’t ever see a positive side to her character, so maybe it’s just that Rose is an abuse victim who feels she can’t leave.
You see? All we get are vague hints. We don’t get Rose really contemplating what it means to give up the world she’s always known for a world of uncertainty-yet-true-love. And as much as I hate filmmakers spelling everything out to the backrow, some elaboration is needed. Whether it’s implied, non-verbal, verbal, or explicit doesn’t really matter so long as it isn’t distracting and doesn’t feel unnatural.
Furthermore, Cameron sure loves to tell us that Rose is unhappy and chokingly restrained, but he doesn’t really tell us much else about her character. I assume she’d be happy to do literally anything else than sit around being rich, drinking tea with her scumbag fiancé, but that doesn’t necessarily make her compelling.
Other than her breakdown moment – where she runs to the stern to try and kill herself in a moment of last-straw-snapping, primal screaming insanity – I feel like she’s a Bella Swan character; a portable cardboard standee whose sole purpose is to be easily squinted away in favor of the female audience members. It’s not hard when all you have to go on is “nice and attractive.”
Again, I argue that’s worse than the Disney princesses, but I digress.
At least Disney princesses typically get a well-established “I Want” song. Rose wants freedom, but what does that mean? What would she do with it, if she could?
And this is a question I ask before she meets Jack. After she meets him, I guess she wants fun and spontaneity? I honestly don’t know, Movie. You’re using so much visual shorthand, which would be good if you didn’t try to cram so much of it in there.
But back to my point: where is the tension? Other than the obviously more important, it’s-the-goddamn-title-of-the-movie dilemma?
Even if you somehow missed that the boat is going to sink, what keeps you invested in the romance and the thwarting of Cal and his James Bond patsy? Cal could threaten to kill Jack like the Duke does with Christian, but he doesn’t really do that while Rose debates with herself. He only tries to kill him himself after his renegade fiancé clearly establishes her choice. At the worst-possible and least believable time, I might add.
Christian doesn’t know the full extent of the Duke’s power and influence. He’s just a rich guy macking on his woman. He also doesn’t know Satine’s personal experiences; how she has come to these conclusions in her life, or the fact that she is, you know, dying. Heck, she doesn’t even know she’s dying at first, and when she does find out, it changes how she plans to proceed.
Much like Romeo, all Christian knows is that he’s in love, and all he needs to do is break down Satine’s walls and get her to see things the way he does, and the two of them are home free. And she is drawn in by his naiveté.
It’s refreshing and new to her ears, obviously making her feel conflicted.
It’s not just that they’re both hot and unattainable to one another; they create a whirlwind in the other character’s life, weathering away any set-in-stone plans that they had and permanently altering how they will view the world from then on.
There is a reason why the opening song refers to Christian as “a boy,” is all I’m saying. There is some depth here; much more than just “I’m a free-spirited poor artist” and “I’m a discontent young heiress.”
Now looking at the villains, Billy Zane’s Cal and Richard Roxburgh’s Duke are nearly identical; rich, snobby, dangerously jealous, unlearned and unconcerned with love. But there is a moment that forgives the Duke’s over-the-top performances and one-dimensional evils, at least for me: when a performer reveals that the play he is financing is a parallel of real life, and that he is the evil Maharaja who the courtesan will leave for her true love.
The Duke’s response? Well, paraphrased, it goes like this:
“What, seriously? Why would she choose love, some vague thing I don’t understand, over money and security? How can the sitar player call it love when the best he could offer her is a poor, struggling life?”
Yes, the Duke is told, pretty much to his face, exactly what kind of character he is, and he doesn’t just blindly accept that, or ignore it, and continue on his merry way. It’s almost as though he is turning to the audience and consciously making a case for his side.
Does Cal ever get such a moment? Is he ever challenged, or given a platform to try and make himself relatable in any way?
Nope, because that’s not what kind of movie Titanic is. Nothing about him makes sense outside of his one note (or in this case, two note – Oh Cameron, you spoil us!): “I’m evil/want Rose.”
Titanic is safe and familiar, hiding behind the glittery, gimmicky shroud of a dramatic, real-world setting. It is all of the weakest elements of Romeo and Juliet re-polished for modern tweens and housewives, like Twilight was to Beauty and the Beast and Snow White. If you ported the characters to any other location anywhere, any other ship not named Titanic, the spell would be broken, and you would see how cheap and easy the story really is.
If not for the effects, you may as well be watching any other incarnation of Romeo and Juliet.
You could argue some of the same thing of Moulin Rouge‘s story, but at least it tries new things beyond effects (which are really just an unfair advantage offered by the time). It tries to take a familiar love story and update some of the elements to be interesting and challenging. It is told from the prospective of Romeo, but also in three settings simultaneously: the future, where everything is set in stone; the present, where things can be affected by either the good guys or the bad guys; and the world of the play, which our Romeo basically fashions his ideal ending. The play and the present mirror one another quite a bit, too, as Christian’s views on love and the real world change and becomes more of a man.
I used to think that Romeo and Juliet’s story was weak, because how could their love be so true? Romeo is literally whining to his buddy about his unrequited affection for Rosaline before he sees Juliet and goes, “Wow, she’s a hottie! Rosaline who?”
Yes, most people might assume that what draws them together is in fact lust, not love; they hardly know a thing about each other. Romeo is obsessed with her looks, while Juliet is clearly just flattered that an attractive guy is paying attention to her.
You can argue that, but you can also argue that just because they have never experienced love as we modern folks understand it – the trials of getting to truly know another person and incorporating their lives and goals into our own – doesn’t mean that it is any less true to them.
Maybe they are just being melodramatic teenagers, and a bit of time apart, age, and perspective would show them that life can offer them more in the long run, but maybe what’s really important is the here and now. When you’re young, the world looks so black and white, and time moves slowly, giving you the illusion that nothing will really drastically change.
Maybe they feel that their feelings give their lives meaning and joy. And maybe that is all that really matters.
That is why Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest love stories of all time, despite sometimes looking like a parody of love on the surface. That is why it is so frequently lauded and adapted: because it captures a true, compelling, and universal, if illogical, human experience.
But back to two modern adaptations of it: yes, Moulin Rouge! is a silly sugar high experience, but it never pretends to be more than a dreamy fantasy puff pastry stuffed liberally with creamy melodrama. Meanwhile, there is something inherently disingenuous about a storyteller, even a well-meaning one, who looks at a tragic event and says, “I’m going to use this as a set piece for my bodice-ripper love story.”
Also, I must point out that both movies have the ever-loathed “third-act misunderstanding”, but while Moulin Rouge!‘s makes sense on some level, Titanic‘s is idiotic. Rose just believes the asshole she hates over her two-day lover when he frames him for theft because the plot needed her to.
And now, as I have said, pretty much everyone glosses over the real stories of the Titanic in favor of that popular movie with sexy Leo. This was perhaps best illustrated by the TV show The Talk , when they thought they were doing a good, loving tribute for the Titanic’s anniversary by blasting Celine Dion and waving their arms like ducks in front of a bow prop.
Yes, truly now, all the people who died and gave their lives to help others on the ship will be looking down at us from above, satisfied that their story really meant something to the world.
I realize I’m getting offended on behalf of a bunch of dead people, but again, try picturing this movie taking place on 9/11. Would you not feel like the heroic actions, sacrifices, and even the lives of the victims are somewhat cheapened? Is it not annoying when so-called news stations sensationalize false and unimportant aspects of important stories?
Can we not get so easily distracted by Leo’s dreamy eyes and floppy hair, or Kate Winslet’s exposed…tracks of land?
A story of hubris being the downfall of man is a pretty good metaphor for the film itself; a director with eyes too big for his stomach, hoping to give us as little newness as possible and milk the proceeds for every last estrogen-soaked drop, so convinced that his ship of a movie could never sink.
…Except that it didn’t sink after all. It’s still hailed as a masterpiece. And Moulin Rouge! is written off as a cheap, soulless, inferior knock-off of a knock-off.
Sometimes I really don’t get people.