After the press screening of "Moulin Rouge," I stood in the lobby of the
theater listening to the reactions of my friends and colleagues.
Everyone seemed a bit numb, understandable after sitting through a
barrage of often-incongruous sounds and images. A pal of mine simply
said that he loved the film and could hardly wait to take his wife to
see it. Another enthusiast immediately began to analyze the production,
while a woman who flat-out hated the movie gave him the skunk eye. When
one fellow quietly stated "I've never really been a fan of musicals,"
the statement surprised me because, even though the story is told almost
completely through song, I didn't think of it as a musical. There is so
much going on in "Moulin Rouge" that "musical" seems too small a term to
"Moulin Rouge" is the kind of creation that sends critics scurrying off
to the Big Tub O' Adjectives in search of proper words to describe the
experience. Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the man behind "Strictly
Ballroom" and "Romeo + Juliet," fills the heads of viewers with unique
camerawork, opulent imagery and songs ranging from "The Sound of Music"
to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Sumptuous and beautiful, vulgar and
overdone, "Moulin Rogue" travels through the looking glass while an
ethereal stereo loaded with 50 years worth of catchy tunes operates on
the "random" setting.
Oh, and it has a story as well.
"It was 1899, the summer of love... " Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a
penniless young writer newly arrived in Paris, "to write about truth,
beauty, freedom and love," where he encounters a group of bohemians, led
by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). Christian meets Satine
(Nicole Kidman), a courtesan from the legendary Moulin Rogue, and his
world transforms from black and white to technicolor. At once fragile
and vivacious, the dazzling red-haired woman sweeps him off his feet
without even trying. Christian instantly falls in love with her and
Satine finds herself smitten with him as well, which is quite a
hindrance for someone in her profession.
Working with the bohemians and Moulin Rogue impresario Harold Zidler
(Jim Broadbent), Christian writes an opus modestly named "Spectacular
Spectacular." Zidler quickly finds a backer, the wealthy Duke of Monroth
(Richard Roxburgh), but there's a catch - the duke also wants the hand
of the fair Satine. As if all that isn't enough, Satine has a cough, and
while a cough in the real world probably indicates a cold, it rarely
turns out to be anything that simple in Movie Land.
Like a teeter-totter, "Moulin Rogue" moves up and down between the
ridiculous and the sublime. One of the loveliest moments comes as
Christine and Satine commune outdoors at night, becoming part of a
defiantly unrealistic Parisian cityscape straight from a book of fairy
tales. Together they dance, while serenaded by the man in the moon
(Alessandro Safina provides the vocals), apparently transported from the
classic Georges Méliès silent film to guard the nocturnal sky.
Other scenes merely traffic in everything-and-the-kitchen-sink overload.
The cavorting of Toulouse-Lautrec and his comrades gets strained at
times and some of their overt comedy, accompanied by cartoon sound
effects, is overly reminiscent of the frenzied farce that sitcoms like
"Bewitched" beat into the ground.
Of course, sensory overload was exactly what Baz Luhrmann had in mind.
"We never heard from Baz to turn it down," one of the actors told the
Los Angeles Times. "It was always, 'More! More!'" The director even sent
a note to his cast reading, "I dare you to make me say you've gone too
The musical numbers reflect his attitude. One knockout piece, the
"Elephant Love Medley," incorporates the Beatles' "All You Need Is
Love," U2's "In the Name of Love," Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love
You" and Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Your Song." Need more? How
about "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" spiced with portions of
Luhrmann's cast offers a wide variety of approaches that, together, add
up to something messy, but often wonderful. Ewan McGregor is extremely
likable as Christian, emphasizing the sincerity of the love-struck poet.
McGregor's singing voice is robust and adds vigor at just the right
moments. Once labeled the "Ice Queen," Nicole Kidman melts that
characterization with a sizzling, yet tender, performance. She handles
the songs adroitly, although her voice sounds a bit thin in the upper
range. Veteran character actor Jim Broadbent is suitably larger than
life as ringmaster Zidler - wait until you see him perform "Like a
Virgin." As the buffoonish duke, Richard Roxburgh proves to be the
film's weakest link, although I'm sure he was simply following
I suspect "Moulin Rogue" will be one of those love-it-or-hate-it films.
While I didn't completely love it, I most certainly liked it a lot. Over
the course of a year, I see well over 300 movies, and most of them look
like Xeroxes of each other. "Moulin Rogue" is an original, and an
original, even a flawed one, is a thing to be cherished.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott