Liveness, Presence, And Immediacy In Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001) attempts to capture a sense of liveness, presence, and immediacy similar to that provided by the stage musical or theatre performance through its use of cinematic verisimilitude, space, fourth wall breaks, close-ups and shots not typical to theatre, memory, and repetition. In order to understand how the film uses these techniques to achieve liveness, presence, and immediacy, one must understand what these attributes are. Philip Auslander believes that the definition of liveness is dependent on its opposite, the mediatized or the recorded; something can only be described as live when there is something not “live” to compare it to. Phelan describes presence as having a relationship to immediacy as immediacy requires the presence of living bodies in the present; if these bodies seem canned, they lose their ephemeral nature and are seen as mediatized. Immediacy is “the sense of a continuous perceptual experience unfolding in real time”. Immediacy also refers to “communicative behaviors that reduce the physical or psychological distance between subjects and foster connections and closeness with another”.

Verisimilitude is the appearance of reality. Cinematic verisimilitude can be achieved by using realistic sets, makeup, costumes, dialogue, and so on. This realism helps to reduce the mental energy that an audience member needs to use in order to see sets, characters, and situations as real; thus, verisimilitude can help audience members to stay focused on actions occurring in the present, creating immediacy and presence. Cinematic verisimilitude also creates liveness as realistic sets and costumes help to hide the medium of film by seeming invisible or natural to the audience. At the beginning of the film, the audience is greeted with a theatre set displaying old timey company logos (after the initial 20th Century Fox logo) and the film’s title card behind a conductor conducting a seemingly live band. The conductor makes it easier for the audience to believe that the music is not canned and that the music only starts and stops when the conductor waves his arms. This captures a sense of liveness as the audience is typically used to music coming out of nowhere at the beginning of a film. Through the audience’s knowledge of the mediatized music that typically plays at the beginning of a film, they are able to see the opposite of this which captures a sense of liveness. The theatre set and old timey logos have a similar effect as an audience is usually first greeted by modern logos and a film’s title; the film’s choice to start with typical theatre elements allows for the spontaneous song and dance within the film to make sense as the whole movie is presented as Christian’s musical from the very beginning. The film explains its intention to be seen as a theatre musical from the beginning; this reduces the psychological jump that the audience needs to make to understand this, which creates immediacy. Later in the film, the audience enters the Moulin Rouge in a first person point of view. The camera jumps between the chaos and Christian’s confusion before Zidler’s performance begins. In this sequence, the audience is initially confused by the large space and chaos; the audience’s confusion allows them to empathize with Christian’s confusion, making it more a realistic and immediate experience. The audience is also forced to process everything in the present because everything is happening so quickly. Three-fourths of the way through the film, a similar shot of a first person entrance into the Moulin Rouge occurs. This time, the Moulin Rouge is a theatre and the space is a lot easier to comprehend. The Moulin Rouge is just as realistic as it was before, but the immediacy comes from the audience’s instant understanding of the space rather than from their confusion of it; the audience’s experience is also made more present through the first person point of view. The golden elephant is an example of how the film captures a sense of liveness through helping the audience to understand space. When Satine and Christian first enter the elephant, the audience understands the inside space of the elephant through Satine, Christian, and the Duke’s confusing meeting and some of the outside space through Toulouse and company’s spying. After the Duke first leaves, the audience gains more knowledge of the elephant’s exterior through Zidler’s spying. During Christian’s rendition of Your Song, the audience sees the top of the elephant and gains a complete picture of the space. The audience’s understanding of the elephant’s space allows them to get lost in the action and forget that the space is just a set; the film aksi captures liveness in this instance through the elephant’s elaborate design and the props within.

The film also captures a sense of liveness, presence, and immediacy through its use of fourth wall breaks. When the audience is about to enter into Montmartre in first person, a preacher looks at the camera and says to “turn away from this village of sin”. When the audience enters the village, streetwalkers and criminals gaze upon them. These actions turn the audience into a subject and reduce the psychological distance between the audience and the characters on-screen; this captures a sense of presence and immediacy. This introduction also captures a sense of liveness as an audience would normally be introduced to a village like this through an overhead shot of crimes taking place and/or shady people walking around; as the typical film audience member knows how a village like this is normally introduced, a sense of liveness is captured in the film as it presents the opposite. Throughout the first bit of the film, Christian has flashbacks to his father discouraging him from caring about love and from move to Montmartre. These flashbacks help to create immediacy and presence in the scene where Christian initially rejects the Bohemians’ offer to be their writer as Christian’s motivation for doing so is understood as rational due to his relationship with his father being immediately understood. During the first sequence in the Moulin Rouge, Zidler and his dancers break the fourth wall throughout his act. Zidler and his dancers demand the audience’s attention through their gaze and turn the audience into a subject once again. By repeating the line “Here we are now, entertain us”, Zidler and his dancers call attention to the fact that the film’s audience is largely there for mindless entertainment. This creates immediacy as this line reduces the psychological distance between the audience and the characters on-screen; they know what the audience wants and they are exclaiming that they are there to provide it.

Close-ups and medium shots outside of a typical theatre audience’s view are also used to capture a sense of presence and immediacy. Throughout the film, close-ups are used to show Satine suffering from consumption. These close-ups allow the audience to understand Satine’s suffering as it happens in the present and they make her illness feel like a regular obstacle present in her daily life (until her death). During Satine’s performance, Zidler dances next to Satine to discuss the Duke’s potential investment. They hide behind a number of dancers’ dresses after a few minutes of this in order to discuss what personality Satine should put on for the Duke; at this point, Satine performs relevant actions and facial expressions for the personalities she references. This captures a sense of presence and immediacy as her facial expressions and actions illustrate the fake nature of her job that she would not normally show to anyone but Zidler; the audience feels included in knowing her secret tactics and this makes the scene feel more like Satine is being genuine or real. This realism makes the audience feel like the exchange between Satine and Zidler is presently unfolding for real.

Lastly, the film uses unprofessional singers, memory, and repeated performance to create a sense of presence and immediacy. Instead of hiring professional singers to replace Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, the actors perform the songs themselves. This helps the film in creating more presence and immediacy as the audience sees the actors as singing live whether they know the actors well or not. Come What May is the only original song in the film and it acts as the lover’s secret song within the context of the film when Satine tells Christian that they cannot continue their relationship during the rehearsals. Throughout the film, the line “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” is also repeated regularly. Near the end of the film, the song and line come together as Christian begins to angrily leave the theatre after calling Satine a whore (as he did not know that Satine was pretending to go along with what the Duke wanted in order to keep Christian safe). Toulouse exclaims the line before Satine sings Christian’s song back to him. The audience remembers that the song was originally created by Christian in an effort to keep him and Satine together and by having Satine sing the song back to Christian, the film reaches emotive presence through memory and repeated performance rather than through the performance itself. The repetition of the line also helps to reinforce the love that Satine and Christian have for each other, reducing the psychological distance between the characters and creating immediacy. 

Moulin Rouge captures a sense of liveness, presence, and immediacy through its use of, cinematic verisimilitude, space, fourth wall breaks, close-ups and shots not typical to theatre, memory, and repetition. The film uses cinematic verisimilitude to make the sets, props, makeup, and costumes appear realistic without the audience needing to suspend their belief. The film uses space to confuse the audience during the Moulin Rouge’s first sequence; this confusion makes the audience sympathetic toward Christian’s confusion which creates immediacy and presence. The audience’s confusion toward this sequence’s fast pace also gives them little time to reflect and forces them to make some sense of everything in the present. The film uses fourth wall breaks to make the audience a subject and reduce the psychological and physical distance between them and the characters on-screen. Close-ups are used to make the audience more sympathetic to the action happening on-screen and shots not typical to theatre are used to give the characters on-screen more presence and immediacy. The film also uses memory and repetition of music and lines first conceived within the film’s world to capture a sense of emotional presence that does not simply come from the performance itself (Hudson, 227). Moulin Rouge uses these techniques to capture a sense of liveness, presence, and immediacy similar to that provided by the stage musical or theatrical performance; though, these techniques are largely restricted to use in film which is fascinating as film is typically seen as inferior to theatre when it comes to liveness, presence, and immediacy. 


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16 December 2021
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