Moulin Rouge (United States/Australia, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is a rigorously accurate historical account of events that occurred during the period between 1899 and 1900 in Paris' infamous Moulin Rouge nightclub. Luhrmann's meticulously researched motion picture uncovers several shocking truths previously unknown to historians - for example, it seems that musical luminaries like Elton John and Paul McCartney are guilty of plagiarism - songs credited to them were originally penned by a little-known songwriter named Christian and performed at the Moulin Rouge.

Well, not quite...

Actually, what Luhrmann has done here is to take an historical locale (the Moulin Rouge did exist around the turn of the last century, in the heart of Monmartre) and a few real people and drop them into an entirely fictional production that uses pop hits (primarily from the '70s and '80s) to populate the soundtrack. In keeping with a recent motion picture trend that anarchonistically applies modern music to period pieces, Moulin Rouge ventures down the same trail explored by the likes of Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost and the woefully inept A Knight's Tale.

In a move that echoes Branagh's, Lurhmann deflects likely criticism by transforming his version of 1900 Paris into something out of a hallucinogenic fairy tale. This is not in any sense a "real" version of the City of Lights, nor is it a factual representation of the Moulin Rouge. It's a fantasy, and, because of this, the presence of songs like "The Sound of Music", "Your Song", and "Roxanne" don't seem out of place. In fact, they work surprisingly well in this context. There are also some creative touches applied to familiar tunes. Lurhmann fuses "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" with "Material Girl" and develops a "Love Montage" featuring about a half-dozen love songs. And you haven't lived until you've heard British thespian Jim Broadbent croon "Like a Virgin." (That alone is worth the price of admission...)

Since Moulin Rouge is the product of Australian director Luhrmann, its chief trait is style - that's with a capital S-T-Y-L-E. Viewers are likely either to love or hate the movie's excesses, much as was the case with Luhrmann's oft-discussed 1996 production, Romeo + Juliet (the one starring a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio and a pre-Mod Squad Claire Danes). Luhrmann also helmed the 1992 comedy/romance, Strictly Ballroom, which charmed art-house audiences during its American run.

Moulin Rouge subjects its viewers to a sensory overload with gaudy, gloriously overproduced musical numbers that pay homage to the greats of the past while simultaneously outdoing them. When Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are dancing on the clouds, they're doing so with digitally-created stardust falling all around them. Splashed with garish colors that span the spectrum, Moulin Rouge is bright, brash, and wildly entertaining. It modernizes the musical in a way that may give younger movie-lovers a sense of why this genre was once so popular. The production numbers are presented with so much energy and gusto that it's impossible not to be sucked in - and also impossible not to feel a moment's letdown on each occasion when one is over and it's time to get back to moving the paper-thin narrative forward.

The film's protagonist and narrator is Christian (Ewan McGregor, who keeps his clothes on throughout - much to the chagrin of female viewers), a penniless writer who hooks up with a group of bohemians putting together a play to be performed at the Moulin Rouge. His goal: "to write about truth, beauty, freedom, and love." When the group's leader, the dwarf Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), likes Christian's work, he decides to get him a one-on-one interview with the star of the Moulin Rouge's racy revue, the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman, who keeps her clothes on throughout - much to the chagrin of male viewers). He is immediately smitten, and, to her surprise, so is she. But she is also being pursued by a wealthy duke (Richard Roxburgh), whose investment in the Moulin Rouge will make the club's owner, Zidler (Jim Broadbent, who keeps his clothes on throughout - much to the relief of all viewers), a wealthy man. And there's another factor - Satine is afflicted with tuberculosis (her fate is revealed in the film's first scene, but I won't give it away here).

Despite all of the bombastic musical numbers, or perhaps because of them, the love story in Moulin Rouge works. At times, it's even touching. Some of this has to do with the actors. Ewan McGregor plays his role with a puppydog likability and naïve romanticism. Nicole Kidman positively smolders - it's a shame that her on-screen work here is likely to be overshadowed by her off-screen problems. One could make a compelling case that this is the best performance of her career. The love songs, which form the bulk of their interaction, serve to enhance the sense of romance, and it helps that neither of the stars is being dubbed. Their voices are strong and clear (although occasionally drowned out by the instruments).

Historical purists and those who enjoy only sedate films are likely to be infuriated by what Luhrmann has done here, but who cares? We live in an age of excess, and Lurhmann takes it to the hilt. There's no area in which he holds back. With a widescreen picture, more edits than any film since Requiem for a Dream, and a soundtrack that demands digital playback, Luhrmann has fashioned the template for a new kind of musical. This is as much a summer film as The Mummy Returns, but with one important difference - it's fresher and more lively. And, while my acclaim may not be as rapturous as that of those who enjoyed it during its Opening Night world premiere at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, I am still heartily recommending it to anyone who cherishes the thought of a modern day musical spectacle.

Moulin Rouge (United States/Australia, 2001)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2001-05-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1