Moulin Rouge!

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 06/21/01 23:23:48

"Wear edit-screen"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Moulin Rouge,” a musical, starts off elegantly with a conductor at the bottom of the screen leading the orchestra through a rendition of the 20th Century Fox logo. The movie starts from there with an almost authentic-looking sepia tone image of the streets of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. “This story is about, above all other things, love,” our narrator tells us. Then, as if without warning, the movie explodes into a rapidly-cut frenzy of music, dance, spectacle, bawdiness, showmanship, sleaze, beauty and, above all other things, confusion. So much for elegance, right?

Well, for the moment. Director Baz Luhrman handles every scene in “Moulin Rouge” with the subtlety of a Hunter Thompson/Liberace acid trip. Every fun-and-fancy frame looks beautiful, but you almost never get a chance to bask in it for more than a few short seconds. The movie feels like a rush. Not an adrenaline rush. Not an emotional rush. Just a rush, as though Lurhman wants to cram every single idea he ever had into a mere two hours while trying to convey a story of some sort.

Oh, yes, we have a story. Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a man who moves to the flamboyant, artsy bohemian communes of Paris in hopes of being a great writer. There, he meets Toulouse Lautrec (a dwarfed John Leguizamo) who has been trying to work out the song lyrics to his new show. Christian suggests a silly little tune: “The hills are alive/ With the sound of music!” It’s a hit.

One crazy evening, Christian goes to the Moulin Rouge where we see more of the same craziness we saw at the beginning and with a lot more songs. But I don’t quite want to get sidetracked from the story, as the movie often does. There, he sees the vamp-ish Satine (Nicole Kidman) and instantly falls for her. However, she has already been spoken for this evening by The Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). A string of communication failures leads Christian and Satine together where they declare love for one another. We then learn that Satine has been arranged to marry The Duke.

Christian also wants to write a story for the stage “about love” and he wants Satine to be the star. Together, along with Lautrec’s gang of merry men and the oafish ringmaster Zidler (Jim Broadbent), they try and raise money from The Duke to fund the musical that parallels the predicament of Christian, Satine and The Duke, which of course goes over the Duke’s head. Will she go with the poor-yet-passionate boy or the rich-yet-repulsive man? Well, as Christian keeps telling us, “this story is about love.”

And, well, there you have it. “Moulin Rouge” tells the simplest and one of the most often-told stories, and maybe it should be that way. The movie clearly doesn’t want to convey the emotions of the characters through the usual means, but rather it wants to create an over-all atmosphere for its characters to interact. We know how they feel and we almost know how it’ll end, but we’ve never been here before. In spite of its hyper-active cutting, I never got tired of looking at this movie. This may be one of the greatest movies I have ever seen, and for that I can look over its narrative shortcomings.

I also enjoyed the performances, especially Kidman, whose beautiful entrance into this movie surpasses the elegance of the opening shot of “Eyes Wide Shut,” for which she gave that years best supporting performance (shame on you, Academy!). She looks born for this part, no matter how empty the part may be written. She blends in with the crowd and the scenery like fishnet and glitter camouflage. She looks classic and porcelain when swinging from the trapeze and acts like the liveliest wire when singing and dancing alongside her co-stars. I loved her performance and I hope she soon gets more recognition for her acting abilities than she does for being ex-Ms. Tom Cruise.

Ewan McGregor again shows his liking for taking on a wide range of diverse roles. Here, the role of Christian requires us to believe in him without getting sick of him and his desire for nothing but love. “Love is the only thing worth living for,” he says, a line that McGregor has to convey with dignity and believability more than a few times. And why not? Most movies these days don’t even talk of love in the most innocent sense of the word. In most movies, love stands as a mere plot device. McGregor pulls off a performance that should be embarrassing, but instead comes off assured and balanced.

This movie certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some will find the movie’s musical gimmick of using contemporary songs in 18th century setting a bit hard to get accustomed to. The songs range from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana to “Your Song,” by Elton John. From “Roxanne,” by Sting to “Lady Marmalade.” We even get a whole medley of no less than 10 songs, all contemporary and familiar. To my surprise, it works wonderfully. Even I, a die-hard U2 fan, had no problem with how they used “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” and I’m extremely picky about such things.

As a musical, “Moulin Rouge” mostly works. As a feast for the eyes, everyone involved deserves a special achievement award. As a love story, it offers nothing new and it leaves the viewer walking out feeling a bit empty. Normally, that would not justify a good review. But upon leaving the theater, I did think about how infectious the whole tawdry affair felt. If Luhrman and company only want to tell a simple story about love, but in a free-spirited and original sort of way without any false pretenses, I guess I can admire that.

The poster for the movie reads, “This story is about Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love.” It should read, “This idea is about…” Why not? As ideas go these days, this has to be one of the better ones.

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