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Moulin Rouge

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Moulin Rouge

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 126 Minutes
Release Date: June 2001
Genres: Drama, Music, Romance

*Also starring: John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Garry McDonald, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Jacek Koman, Kylie Minogue

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If I might be permitted to paraphrase from George Auric's Theme from John Huston's 1952 film "Moulin Rouge"--a song, by the way, which is one of the few strains NOT repeated in Baz Luhrmann's current offering...

Looking at this,
I worry and wonder,
The style is great,
But where is its heart?

It's a sad thing to realize,
Nicole and Ewan never melt,
When they kiss and they close their eyes,
They seem to wish they're somewhere else.

They seldom caste spells,
To rend crowds asunder,
So please won't you tell,
Baz, where is your heart?


Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," which bears no relation to the 1952 movie of the same name, is rife with contradictions. The first and less important is that one theme of writers Craig Pearce and Mr. Luhrmann is that love is more important than fame and riches. Yet the entire picture, produced by a major Hollywood house with a budget that could probably not be met by the top ten indie companies combined, stands as an obvious incongruity. Luhrmann could have all the love in the world for film-making but without exorbitantly heavy commercial input, his message could scarcely be communicated.

This takes us to the principal paradox. Bookending the production are the words from "Nature Boy": "The greatest thing, you'll ever learn,/ Is just to love, and be loved in return." This stands as the spine to the entire production. You'd think that Luhrmann would evoke the passion, the misery, the ecstasy and the agony of the world's greatest gift to humankind by summoning a glorious romance that would move the audience to smiles and tears. Instead he resorts to techniques designed to impress a graduate professor at N.Y.U. film school, bringing in everything a director may have learned in his seven years' attendance at the school. This is kitchen sink moviemaking, one which unlocks the pupils of audience eyes while leaving their hearts beating at a pedestrian 72 beats per minute. While we sit in admiration of the optic exhibition, transfixed by color, light, sound, costume, production design and MTV editing, we are simultaneously unmoved, a result of the very hyperinflated, overstuffed production. If the Austrian emperor in Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus" put down the title figure's music with the criticism "too many notes," Luhrmann must likewise bear the responsibility of pitching a picture that has far too many images, bypassing our emotions in favor of eye candy.

This is not to say that "Moulin Rouge" is anything but the most savory eye candy. This "Moulin Rouge" is based loosely on the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld, about a figure in search of true love who risks all by descending to the depths to find it. Luhrmann's hip picture centers on a tragic affair between a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who is typing his story of a failed romance in his shabby Parisian hotel room)--and a gorgeous courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), whose base of operations is the Montmartre's famed Moulin Rouge night club in Paris at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Though Satine wants to be a serious actress, she makes a good living by selling her body to patrons of the club who can afford her while doubling in a showy night-club act that in parts elicits memories of Elizabeth Berkley's role as a Vegas lapdancer in Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls." Though Satine's cardinal rule is "no love allowed," she falls hopelessly for the poor writer who she at first believes is a rich duke capable of furnishing her with her dream. When the real Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) cuts a deal with the nightclub's plump and mustachioed impresario, Zidler (Jim Broadbent), Satine is in effect made into the rich man's exclusive concubine. Satine's conflict between selling her soul to the duke and running away with the starving writer constitutes much of the story's tension.

Luhrmann, however, is more interested in milking film technology for all its worth than in tugging genuinely at our heartstrings, and he does succeed in that. Ms. Kidman's descent from the sky into the nightclub on a trapeze is perhaps the movie's most electrifying image, but Luhrmann also makes use of digital photography to scan the entire neighborhood of the Right Bank as though photographer Donald M. McAlpine soared through the city of lights on a 'copter. Though the Eiffel Tower appears in the background, the action of the film takes place in a series of Twentieth Century Fox studios in Australia, amid Catherine Martin's lavish production and costume design and Jill Bilcock's agitated editing.

If the pumped up film embraces the theme of love vs. money, not the least of its motifs is the homage paid to some of the most recognizable songs of the last century, taped by the performers and lip-synched by them to their own recordings. Ballads include tunes made popular by David Bowie, Elton John, The Beatles, U2, Dolly Parton while their songs and others supply us with a selective history of the century's notable films.

Though there's not really much acting required of Ewan McGregor, whose talents came to the forefront in indies like "Brassed Off" and in blockbusters like "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," he and Ms. Kidman do try to furnish a believable chemistry which would have been better served if Lurhmann only cut some of the dance numbers (such as the Argentinean Tango which is so badly edited that the beauty of the dance of submerged in MTV stylistics) and instead given these two fine performers (and us in the audience) a chance to breathe.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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