Moulin Rouge
directed by Baz Luhrmann
(20th Century Fox, 2001)

Moulin Rouge, director Baz Luhrmann's third feature, could be considered his "post-modern" musical, a homage to the genre that thrived from the 1930s to the early '60s. Set in Paris in the years 1899-1900, the real places and one real person (among the invented personages), in Moulin Rouge almost get overwhelmed by the current trend in melodic anachronisms (as seen in A Knight's Tale and Shrek) -- the use of contemporary pop-rock numbers for the song and dance sequences. The skill and charisma of the performers and the lush, campy aesthetic of the production design makes this conceit work, however, and Moulin Rouge ends up being hugely entertaining.

The plot centers on a youthful writer, Christian (Ewan MacGregor), who narrates the story which he records on his period typewriter, making for an effective framing device. The protagonist came to Paris seeking the Bohemian life and quickly found it in his seedy flat just below the one occupied by none other than Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), here a performance artist rather than just a painter, who recruits Christian to help script a production, "Spectacular, Spectacular," to be mounted at the famous Moulin Rouge night club just across the street. There Christian meets the star, singer/dancer/courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), with whom he inevitably falls in love, a doomed romance for the heroine suffers from consumption. Despite the illness, she dreams of legit theater which the wealthy duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who also desires her, can provide by financing "Spectacular" -- but only if Satine becomes his lover, an awkward condition to say the least. This poses difficulties also for Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the manager of the Moulin Rouge, who could lose his lease should the duke be displeased.

The intentional kitsch of this La Boheme-style story structure of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end despite the machinations of the duke only to have her die in his arms, succeeds by being played out with incredible energy, dazzle and charm by the players. Their talents for song and dance, amply displayed thanks to nearly continuous musical numbers that carry the plot along, manifest in medley-like renditions of the likes of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Lady Marmalade," "Silly Love Songs," "All You Need is Love," "Up Where We Belong," "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Heroes," among others. One of the best sequences, which nearly justifies the price of admission alone, showcases a hyper Broadbent and a bemused Roxburgh hilariously strutting to "Like A Virgin" and featuring a Hello Dollyesque male chorus. Also not to be missed, the grand finale -- a "Bollywood" style extravaganza of highlights from the "Spectacular" -- gorgeously staged and costumed faux Orientalia and the setting for the climactic plot denouements.

Moulin Rouge does suffer from a serious flaw, the director's music video-influenced cinematography employing so much fast-cutting, zooming and manipulating of the characters' movements with CGI-tech, that fascinating sets, costumes, make-up and intriguing choreography frequently fly by literally in a blur. This frustrates the desire to feast the eyes on the sumptuous, intricately textured decor and to focus on the detailed background people and places. Still, Moulin Rouge does manage to slow down its frenetic pace enough for the poignant irony of the story to register and thus offers a visually distinctive, enjoyable, romantic, musical wallow. For a far more realistic, superior and artistically mature version of the Moulin Rouge place of entertainment in its heyday, the classic French movie of the same title deserves to be seen and never be forgotten. It also would be interesting to revive the 1952 Hollywood Moulin Rouge for comparison.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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