A $33-million nose-wrinkler

One might think a movie called Number 5 is a low-budget work by an austere auteur who regards narrative titles as suspiciously commercial: one to four were probably 8mm experimental pieces he made in film school.

But Number 5 is, at an estimated $11-million a minute, the biggest-budget movie ever made and could hardly be more commercial.

In fact, it is a commercial. Costing a reported $33-million, the film — reuniting director Baz Luhrmann with his Moulin Rouge star Nicole Kidman — is an ad for the Chanel fragrance. Number 5 represents the most concerted attempt in cultural history to pass off marketing as art.

Advertising has traditionally been regarded as a school for the cinematic academy: Alan Parker, Ridley and Tony Scott and Jonathan Glazer all graduated from corporate shorts to the feature drama form.

While respected directors have moved from Hollywood to product-selling before (Ang Lee and John Frankenheimer made internet ads for BMW), Luhrmann is the most notable example of someone swimming against the usual tide.

All the body language of the Chanel campaign stresses that selling a smell can be as artistically significant as shooting a movie. When the ad is shown in cinemas and in full-length on TV, the two minutes of action is followed by a full minute of credits.

So does Luhrmann’s Chanel sell have the authentic whiff of cinema? The obvious objection is that it must lack the narrative momentum and development implied by the word ”movie”.

In fact, there is more incident than in many European movies shown at Cannes. Kidman plays the most beautiful but loneliest actress in the world who, fleeing the paparazzi in Manhattan, jumps into a taxi occupied by a young bohemian. Boy and girl fall in love in a series of spectacular tableaux.

The purist objection is that a movie shouldn’t try to make the viewer buy something. Yet this is problematic: the level of product placement in Hollywood movies is now so extreme that a major moment in the Julia Roberts movie Runaway Bride is the best Federal Express advert ever.

In fact, paradoxically, Number 5 is — until the moment the arty bloke susses why the actress smells like that — startlingly free of brand names by modern movie standards.

So the latest Luhrmann is only easily dismissable as a film on grounds of length.

It still seems surprising that director and actress didn’t get sniffy about a perfume ad. Luhrmann has always had an extreme interest in form, and perhaps convinced himself that a commercial was a sonnet as opposed to the Victorian novel of a feature.

As for Kidman, there’s a tradition of actors filming campaigns for foreign markets only, because an advert, even for a celebrated fragrance, gives you a bad smell. But Kidman was probably interested because the Chanel ad puts her in a direct line with Catherine Deneuve and Marilyn Monroe, who both promoted the brand.

Much of the value is novelty: Luhrmann and Kidman would be unwise to make Number 5, The Sequel. Inevitably, other exclusive brands are now craving their own mini-movie, raising the dangerous possibility of a Quentin Tarantino short for some expensive product: The Bill Will Kill.

What Luhrmann and Kidman have done for Chanel doesn’t stink, but a culture in which so much money and talent can be spent on an advert prompts some nose-wrinkling. — Â

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