Moulin Rouge Movie Review
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.