Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge

USA, 2001. Rated PG-13. 183 minutes.

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Garry McDonald, Jacek Koman, Kerry Walker, Caroline O'Connor, David Wenham, Christine Anu, Natalie Jackson
Writer: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Music: Craig Armstrong, Marius De Vries, Steve Hitchcock, Cristina Aguilera (song), David Bowie (song), et al.
Cinematographer: Donald McAlpine
Producers: Fred Baron, Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann
Director: Baz Luhrmann


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

To paraphrase a comment comedian Jake Johannsen once made about Liberace, in the future, there will never be a movie about which people will say, "It's just like Moulin Rouge, only MORE so." Moulin Rouge is definitely the apex of… whatever the heck it's the apex of. Take the absurdity of director Baz Lurhmann's Strictly Ballroom and the dazzle of his Romeo+Juliet, ramp both up to the tenth degree, and you might be in the general vicinity of Moulin Rouge. Provided you drop acid at the same time.

No doubt voted Least Likely to Remake The Bicycle Thief in his high school yearbook, Lurhmann has made a musical extravaganza that is, above all things, about love--or so the preview trailer and Ewan McGregor's narration insist. Luhrmann has not strayed far from the themes of Romeo+Juliet, because McGregor (The Phantom Menace, Trainspotting) and Nicole Kidman (The National Enquirer, The Star) are ill-fated lovers, and we learn this right at the start. McGregor's Christian is an aspiring writer who, disregarding his father's pleas not to cross over to the Dark Side, chooses to live the bohemian life in that underworld of sin and debauchery known as Montmartre. There he falls in with a band of bizarre creative types, after one of them literally falls in on him. Nicole Kidman as SatineThe bohemians' ringleader, one Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (a digitally shortened John Leguizamo, Summer of Sam, Spawn), enlists Christian's aid to write a musical they hope to stage at the Moulin Rouge. Though currently a den of prostitution and a playground for the prosperous, the Moulin Rouge's owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones's Diary) hopes to turn the venue into a real theater, and the Moulin Rouge's star attraction, Satine (Kidman), aspires to legitimate stardom.

Christian and the merry band go to the Moulin Rouge to pitch their ideas. Christian is mistaken there for the Duke of Worcester, (Richard Roxburgh, Passion, Mission: Impossible 2), a potential investor who can make Zidler and Satine's dreams come true--provided Satine makes the Duke's dreams come true. One shenanigan leads to another, and, inevitably, Christian and Satine are having an affair under the nose of the increasingly obsessed Duke, while trying to convince him Satine is his alone.

The story is not fresh. It's a classically melodramatic love tragedy, blown up by Lurhmann into a spectacularly exaggerated musical farce. According to Kidman, Lurhmann constantly exhorted his cast to push the envelope, and challenged them to make him say they'd gone too far. He never did. The film is passionately over the top. Not just the cast, but everything--the music, the costumes, the direction, the editing, you name it. Moulin Rouge is so over-the-top, it's the Dream Team against the Seven Dwarves. It's Goliath competing in the pole vault at the gnome Olympics. It's that Sylvester Stallone movie about arm-wrestling--oh wait, it's every Sylvester Stallone movie.
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The only thing Moulin Rouge has in common with a real time and place is its name. It wasn't even shot in Paris, but in Lurhmann's homeland of Australia--all the exteriors appear digital. Moulin Rouge takes place in some alternate reality, where the costumes and medicine are 19th century, but all the songs are modern numbers, including Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Elton John's "Your Song," Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and new material written by current chart-toppers like Christina Aguilera. All the performers, including Kidman, who says she's never performed as a singer, handle their numbers well. The unexpected standout is McGregor, who shows off a lovely and expressive singing voice. However, Luhrmann seems to prefer medleys, which (although it's fun to play name-that-tune) gives Moulin Rouge an incoherent musical identity and prevents most of the numbers from establishing a clear mood. Particularly disappointing, Jacek Koman's rasping, Latin-tinged interpretation of The Police's "Roxanne" is an expressive and artistic high point, but Luhrmann abandons it all too quickly in favor of other tunes.

Do not go to Moulin Rouge expecting an accurate snapshot of Paris in 1900. And do not go expecting to be moved to tears, because the film's hyperbole creates emotional distance between the characters and audience that even Kidman and McGregor's considerable charisma cannot completely overcome. But do go expecting to see something unique, because Luhrmann is exploring the limits of the film medium. And expect to have fun. All of Moulin Rouge's inventiveness is directed toward the creation of pure entertainment, and on that level Moulin Rouge succeeds. And I usually hate musicals.

Review © May 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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