Writer-director Baz Luhrmann wastes no time getting to the flamboyant and cinematic razzle-dazzle of "Moulin Rouge," a spectacular near-opera that breathes 21st Century life into the movie musical by invoking the wildest cultural spirits from the dawn of the 20th Century.
In the film's opening sequence Luhrmann pushes into the frame of a scratchy, grainy silent film image of Paris, circa 1900. We're swept over sepia-toned rooftops and down into the deteriorated hotel room of the broken-hearted hero, a once-idealistic young writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) who sits at a typewriter about to pour out the tale of his doomed love for a beautiful courtesan who had been the star of the floor show at the infamous Moulin Rouge cabaret.
When Christian's flashback to happier days begins, Luhrmann reverses out of this antiquey image of Paris until he reaches the same starting vantage point. Suddenly bright, rich color bleeds into the frame and the camera zooms forward once again, into a now effervescent, vital and fantastical City of Lights in all its bohemian splendor.
A sing-songy circus of can-can club life erupts from the screen as Parisian newcomer Christian is commissioned to pen a musical extravaganza for the Moulin Rouge and its avant-garde theater troupe, lead by none other than Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the Lilliputian painter who helped make the joint famous and greatly influenced Luhrmann's atmospheric palette.
Their leading lady is to be Satine (Nicole Kidman) -- the club's irresistibly tantalizing, sex-bomb siren of a singer/showgirl/courtesan -- who makes her entrance on a swing lowered from the Moulin Rouge ceiling during the film's first splendiferously Babylonian production number. An ingeniously scored, enormously splashy, rock'n'roll show tune-rendered medley, it combines disco hit "Lady Marmalade" ("Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?") with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Fatboy Slim's "Because We Can" and, to tie it all together, a bridge co-written by Luhrmann, his script collaborator (Craig Pearce) and his composer (Craig Armstrong).
This up-tempo number and Satine's subsequent coupling of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" with "Material Girl," pretty much sets the gloriously glitzy standard for the rest of the movie, which follows a simplistic but tragic love story between Christian and Satine. In short, they fall hard for each other but have to hide their affair because her services have been promised to a wealthy, powerful, jealous and nefariously sneering English duke (Richard Roxburgh) who is bankrolling the show.
If Busby Berkeley, Federico Fellini and Groucho Marx were to get fractured together on absinthe (the hallucinogenic hooch of choice at the real Moulin Rogue 100 years ago) and collaborate on a musical, it might turn out something like "Moulin Rouge."
Yet at the same time this picture is -- for better or worse -- unmistakably a creation of Baz Luhrmann. Elements of his previous directorial efforts -- 1992's immensely gratifying but similarly shallow "Strictly Ballroom" and 1996's stylistically groundbreaking but badly acted "Romeo + Juliet" -- can be seen here morphing into something new, exciting and even more bizarre.
There is no denying Luhrmann is a great showman, but he has yet to prove himself a decent actor's director. Except for the two leads, the entire cast is little more than a menagerie of screwball caricatures.
But McGregor and Kidman keep the picture grounded with ebullient and affecting performances that manage to stand out in spite of being grossly upstaged by the non-stop spectacle of it all. As they flirt and fall in love, and as especially as Satine learns she's dying from consumption (only symptom: occasional, petite coughs of blood into a lacey hankie), these consummate talents go out of their way to get inside their characters' heads. So even when the plot veers off-course slightly with trite secrets and misunderstandings in the last two reels, their sacrificial devotion still rings vicariously true.
More importantly, can these two ever belt out a tune! Romancing Satine on the roof of the Moulin Rouge in an extraordinary 10-song pasticcio duet, Christian conjures up another round of amusingly familiar lyrics, declaring "in the name of love" (courtesy of U2) that "all you need is love" (courtesy of The Beatles) and "I-e-I-e-I will always love yooou-ou-ou" (Dolly Parton by way of Whitney Houston). McGregor's fine, full voice is brimming with enthusiasm, and Kidman's replies are sultry and sonorous.
The amalgamation of the incredibly broad range of music in "Moulin Rouge" is a feat of daring creativity that drives this entirely unique cinematic experience. It contributes to the sensory overload, but at the same time, every song -- be it McGregor singing "The Sound of Music" or The Police's "Roxanne" being turned into a lusty tango -- occurs quite naturally in the story. And that is the litmus test of a truly good musical.
Luhrmann and cast really have a ball with this stuff -- and so will you, I imagine. But the director's diddling with modern music doesn't always turn out as well as it does in the rooftop scene. He fails to edit out a stupidly campy rendition of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" that verges distractingly into "Rocky Horror" territory. There's serious overkill of slapstick sound effects, too, and lots of exaggerated stage business throughout the movie. Sometimes Luhrmann just doesn't realize when enough is enough.
By the time "Moulin Rouge" reaches its finale -- a lavish performance of Christian's play which parallels the film's romance story a la "Shakespeare In Love" -- the plot has degraded into a series of contrived obstacles thrown in his lovers' path.
But at this point, the whole affair is already so wonderfully far-out and distinctive, it's hard to fault it for the kind of cheap plot devices that perfectly good musicals have been using since the advent of the orchestra pit. An incredible production of a pretty good movie (and like Lars Von Trier's "Dancer In the Dark," a great experiment in birthing the genre's next wave) "Moulin Rouge" is definitely a case of style over substance. But what style! And what fun.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 23rd December 1952
Box Office Worldwide: $177.7M
Distributed by: MGM Home Entertainment
Production compaines: Bazmark Films, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 6 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Nicole Kidman as Satine, Ewan McGregor as Christian, John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, Jim Broadbent as The Unconscious Argentinean, Richard Roxburgh as The Duke, Garry McDonald as The Doctor, Jacek Koman as The Unconscious Argentinean, Matthew Whittet as Satie, Kerry Walker as Marie, Caroline O'Connor as Nini Legs in the Air, Christine Anu as Arabia, Natalie Mendoza as China Doll, Lara Mulcahy as Môme Fromage, David Wenham as Audrey, Kylie Minogue as The Green Fairy, Ozzy Osbourne as Voice of the Green Fairy, Deobia Oparei as Le Chocolat, Linal Haft as Warner, Keith Robinson as Le Petomane, Peter Whitford as Stage Manager, Norman Kaye as Satine's Doctor, Arthur Dignam as Christian's Father, Carole Skinner as Landlady, Jonathan Hardy as Man in the Moon, Plácido Domingo as Voice of Man in the Moon (as Placido Domingo), Kiruna Stamell as La Petite Princesse, Anthony Young as Orchestra Member, Dee Donavan as Character Rake, Johnny Lockwood as Character Rake, Don Reid as Character Rake, Tara Morice as Prostitute, Daniel Scott as Absinthe Drinker / Guitarist, Veronica Beattie as Montmartre Dance Team, Lisa Callingham as Montmartre Dance Team, Rosetta Cook as Montmartre Dance Team, Fleur Denny as Montmartre Dance Team, Kelly Grauer as Montmartre Dance Team, Jaclyn Hanson as Montmartre Dance Team, Michelle Hopper as Montmartre Dance Team, Fallon King as Montmartre Dance Team, Wendy McMahon as Montmartre Dance Team, Tracie Morley as Montmartre Dance Team, Sue-Ellen Shook as Montmartre Dance Team, Jenny Wilson as Montmartre Dance Team, Luke Alleva as Montmartre Dance Team, Andrew Aroustian as Montmartre Dance Team, Stephen Colyer as Montmartre Dance Team, Steve Grace as Montmartre Dance Team (as Steven Grace), Mark Hodge as Montmartre Dance Team, Cameron Mitchell as Montmartre Dance Team, Deon Nuku as Montmartre Dance Team, Shaun Parker as Montmartre Dance Team, Troy Phillips as Montmartre Dance Team, Rodney Syaranamual as Montmartre Dance Team, Ashley Wallen as Montmartre Dance Team, Nathan Wright as Montmartre Dance Team, Susan Black as Paris Dance Team, Nicole Brooks as Paris Dance Team, Danielle Brown as Paris Dance Team, Anastacia Flewin as Paris Dance Team, Fiona Gage as Paris Dance Team, Alex Harrington as Paris Dance Team, Camilla Jakimowicz as Paris Dance Team, Rochelle Jones as Paris Dance Team, Caroline Kaspar as Paris Dance Team, Mandy Liddell as Paris Dance Team, Melanie Mackay as Paris Dance Team, Elise Mann as Paris Dance Team, Charmaine Martin as Paris Dance Team, Michelle Wriggles as Paris Dance Team, Michael Boyd as Paris Dance Team, Lorry D'Ercole as Paris Dance Team, Michael Edge as Paris Dance Team, Glyn Gray as Paris Dance Team, Craig Haines as Paris Dance Team, Stephen Holford as Paris Dance Team, Jamie Jewell as Paris Dance Team, Jason King as Paris Dance Team, Ryan Males as Paris Dance Team, Harlin Martin as Paris Dance Team, Andrew Micallef as Paris Dance Team, Jonathan Schmölzer as Paris Dance Team, Bradley Spargo as Paris Dance Team, Joseph 'Pepe' Ashton as Tabasco Brother, Jordan Ashton as Tabasco Brother, Marcos Falagan as Tabasco Brother, Mitchel Falagan as Tabasco Brother, Chris Mayhew as Tabasco Brother, Hamish McCann as Tabasco Brother, Adrien Janssen as Tabasco Brother, Shaun Holloway as Tabasco Brother, Darren Dowlut as Cocoliscious Brother, Dennis Dowlut as Cocoliscious Brother, Pina Conti as La Ko Ka Chau, Nandy McClean as Twin, Maya McClean as Twin, Patrick Harding-Irmer as Waiter, Albin Pahernik as Waiter, Aurel Verne as Waiter, Kip Gamblin as Latin Dancer