"I've always liked creative movies, but isn't this one a little too creative?"
A friend posed that ironic question after viewing a French art film recently, and at this year's Cannes filmfest, it applies just as well to two American pictures.
You've never seen more striking technical wizardry than the camera tricks and editing-room magic that zip through some of the most talked-about movies here. But you can't help wondering if the wit and warmth of old-time Hollywood are getting a bit lost in the shuffle.
"Moulin Rouge" is a cascade of ingenious cinematic effects that are more about dazzling your eyes than touching your heart. "Shrek," one of very few animated films ever to receive high billing here, combines cutting-edge cartooning with smart-alecky storytelling and gross-out humor. Both are self-aware efforts to reinvent old Hollywood genres - the Hollywood musical in "Moulin Rouge," the animated cartoon in "Shrek."
There's no denying how strenuously they chase after their goals, or how many new-fangled methods the filmmakers have put into play. But in the end, the most tried-and-true elements of these ambitious movies - Nicole Kidman's vivacity, Paul McCartney's lyrics, Mike Myers's vocal skills, the endless resonance of fairy-tale adventure - may play the most important part in whatever popularity they achieve.
Of the two movies, which had their world premieres here, Moulin Rouge may have the biggest box-office challenge when it reaches American theaters beginning today.
Kidman is stunning - so what's new? - and Ewan McGregor is enough of a heartthrob to fill the celluloid shoes of Tom Cruise and others who've partnered her in the past. But director Baz Luhrmann surrounds them with so much cinematic whoop-de-do that you can't help wondering if he lacks confidence in their charisma.
Set near Paris just over a century ago, the story centers on two classic characters. Kidman plays Satine, a can-can dancer who dreams of being an actress. McGregor plays Christian, a poet who journeys to the unconventional precincts of Montmartre's most notorious nightclub - much as Orpheus traveled to the underworld in the ancient Greek myth that partly inspired this movie.
Complicating their love affair is a wealthy duke (Richard Roxburgh), who ensnares Satine with help from an ambitious impresario (Jim Broadbent) who's greedy for cash so he can steer the Moulin Rouge - and its star dancer - toward the world of high culture instead of low entertainment. Also on hand is John Leguizamo as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the diminutive painter and unseen manipulator of France's tumultuous avant-garde scene.
This material could have motion-picturized in countless different ways - as sensitive drama, over-the-top-melodrama, old-fashioned musical, high-stepping comedy, or outright farce. The approach chosen by Luhrmann can only be described as postmodern pastiche, using "postmodern" according to the simplest of its many definitions: "anything goes."
Indeed, it's hard to think of a mainstream movie in which so many things do go, sometimes blending into an inventive stream of toe-tapping diversion, other times having head-on collisions that make you think the screen might literally explode. The setting is Europe in 1899; the style is MTV in 2001. The story is rooted in timeless myth, and the dialogue is jammed with 21st-century wisecracks. Capable actors like McGregor and Broadbent delve into the depths of their characters - as much as the frenetic script allows - while Luhrmann's lenses fracture their performances into kaleidoscopic bits and pieces.
And then there's the music, swooping from "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to "The Sound of Music" to "All You Need Is Love" to "Like a Virgin" without a pause for breath, much less a nod to consistency. Most of this is sung and orchestrated with a hyperactive glee that will either tingle your ears with pleasure or send you into a brain-frazzling time warp.
Music is only one aspect of "Moulin Rouge," but it illustrates the box-office questions looming over this one-of-a-kind movie. Will young audiences like the sounds of their favorite Madonna hits interpreted in campy ways by very un-Madonna-like performers? Will older folks revel in nostalgia when old-time tunes make their way into the mix, or will fans of Julie Andrews and the Beatles - or Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, for that matter - find the whole thing a music-video mess that distorts these golden oldies?
Critics here with an eye for aesthetics have tended to praise Luhrmann's imaginative approach, while those with an eye for ticket-window numbers have tended toward skepticism about its profitability.
I think the truth lies somewhere in between. I'm a steadfast admirer of Luhrmann's debut movie, the exuberant "Strictly Ballroom," and I was impressed by his ability to reach young moviegoers with his follow-up film, "Romeo + Juliet," which is so postmodern that the plans of Shakespeare's long-ago lovers are foiled by a late FedEx delivery. But this time I think he may have strained creative filmmaking to its commercial limits, putting more faith in his unique cinematic vision than everyday audiences are likely to do.
I don't mean to minimize the very real charms of Kidman and McGregor, or the enduring appeal of popular songs from several generations, or the ability of Luhrmann's technical team to fill the screen with sights you've never seen before and are unlikely to encounter again. But if "Moulin Rouge" sounds like a spectacle you don't want to miss - especially on the wide theatrical screen, where it looks far better than its video versions will ever be able to match - you'd better catch it soon, before the next wannabe blockbuster crowds it out of the multiplex.
Shrek should do better - which doesn't mean it's a better movie, just that it takes a safer path to the hearts of the young, hip audience it's clearly aimed at.
The hero is an amiable ogre who wants to be loved despite his ugly face, uncouth manners, and outwardly fearsome behavior. After a few quirky plot twists with postmodern touches - including a manic parody of TV game shows - he embarks on a voyage with a talking donkey and a beautiful princess, who proves to be as secretly ungainly as our hero, thanks to a magic spell that's been cast upon her.
"Shrek" begins with a burst of by-the-numbers vulgarity, obviously designed to assure young viewers that it's more cool and crass than the real fairy tales it resembles and makes fun of. It soon improves, thanks to lively dialogue and energetic voice performances by the likes of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and John Lithgow.
Equally impressive is its state-of-the-art animation, complete with dazzlingly detailed images and the sorts of reality-mimicking effects - eagerly dancing flames, smoothly flowing water - that movie cartoonists could only approximate before sophisticated computers entered Hollywood's visual tool kit.
Computer-aided realism is only a tool, however, and no animated film can be better than its story, dialogue, and acting allow it to be. If moviegoers flock to "Shrek," credit will belong as much to the directing skills of Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson as to the high-tech gadgetry they've used to accomplish their goals.
'Shrek' opens in theaters today; 'Moulin Rouge' opens nationwide June 1.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor