We might imagine a movie called Number 5 to be a low-budget work by an austere auteur who regards narrative titles as suspiciously commercial: the movies numbered 1 to 4 were probably 8mm experimental pieces he made in film school.
But Number 5 is, at an estimated US$11 million per minute, the biggest-budget movie ever made and could hardly be more commercial. In fact, it is a commercial: costing a reported US$33 million, the film -- reuniting director Baz Luhrmann with his Moulin Rouge star Nicole Kidman -- is an ad for the Chanel fragrance.
In a week when the marketing of art reached new levels of intensity -- with the stage show The Producers and the film Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason huckstered like firewood in an ice age -- Luhrmann and Kidman's 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 moved from corporate shorts to the feature drama form, and critics still routinely rebuke them for betraying their salesman's roots in the tendency to make all weather resemble a sunset.
While respected directors have moved from Hollywood to product-selling before (Ang Lee and John Frankenheimer made Internet ads for BMW some years ago), Luhrmann is the most notable example of someone going against the usual traffic.
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 (before the new Bridget Jones film) and in its full-length version on TV, the two minutes of action is followed by a full minute of credits. Journalists attending previews were handed a press release more lavishly produced than many books. The director has said that he wants Number 5 to be figured as a film rather than a commercial.
So does Baz's Chanel sell have the authentic whiff of film? The obvious objection to two minutes of celluloid is that it must lack the narrative momentum and development that is implied by the very word "movie."
In fact, there is rather more incident within the 120 seconds of storytelling in Number 5 than in many European movies screened in competition at Cannes and Venice. Kidman plays the most beautiful but also the loneliest actress in the world (you sense Luhrmann was pushing at an open door when he pitched that to her) 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 that suggest that Luhrmann is still besotted with his storyboards for Moulin Rouge.
But, even if the work tells enough of a tale to qualify as a film, the purist objection would be that it can't be a movie because it is designed to make the viewer buy something. Yet this disqualification 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 ad Federal Express ever had, while The Manchurian Candidate and Cellphone both contain Nokia plot-twists.
In fact, paradoxically, Luhrmann's Number 5 is -- until the moment when the arty bloke susses why the actress smells the way she does -- startlingly free of brand names by modern movie standards.