There was a boy… A boy from London who fell for a beautiful French girl. A boy who fancied himself a writer, a poet who went by the name of Christian (Ewan McGregor), who came to 1899 Paris to write about the things dearest to his heart: Freedom,Beauty, Truth and above all, Love. Yet he did not know true love then, that is until a narcoleptic Argentinean (Jacek Koman) fell through the roof of his hotel room, soon followed by a diminutive painter named Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (John Leguizamo) who took Christian into his band of bohemian “children of the revolution”. Together, they set out to put together Spectacular Spectacular, a relentlessly modern and dynamic musical play to be performed at the Moulin Rouge, starring the nightclub/dancehall/bordello’s star courtisane, Satine (Nicole Kidman), wonderful Satine, with whom the young writer becomes infatuated at first sight. But to produce such an extravagant show, money is needed, so Moulin Rouge owner and ringleader Zidler (Jim Broadbent) turns to the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who accepts to finance the enterprise but only if he gets exclusive rights to Satine’s favors. But she loves Christian, and he loves her, what will they do? Tragedy, oh tragedy, but the show must go on…
Director and co-writer (with Craig Pearce) Baz Luhrmann describes the style he brought to the Australian dance flick “Strictly Ballroom” and his underrated take on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” as “red curtain theatricality”. He likes to deal with familiar types of stories (so the audience knows how it will end) taking place in sort of a heightened reality, with plenty of devices reminding the audience that they’re watching a movie. “Moulin Rouge!” is a perfect example of that. It’s not interested in the banal and the realistic, it’s Cinema!!!, with a capital ‘C’ and plenty of exclamation points! Music! Flying colors! Dancing! Emotions set free! Slapstick! LOVE! The red curtain opens (literally) and then we’re off for one wild ride, a rocky electric can-can boogie playing over a love rollercoaster, as seen through the lenses of a filmmaker with a vision equal parts Méliès, Technicolor 1950s musicals and MTV.
It’s quite overwhelming at first, but in a good way. Luhrmann’s frenetic back and forth puts you in the same state of mind as Christian as he enters the Moulin Rouge for the first time. On one side powdered girls are doing their thing, chanting the “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” chorus from the Labelle hit Lady Marmalade, while across the way a bunch of men in tuxedos are emulating Nirvana and proclaiming “Here we are now, entertain us”, while Zidler is screaming “Because you can can-can!” on Fatboy Slim‘s electronic beats. Then Satine floats down on a trapeze crooning Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends and takes everybody’s breath away… The men’s, Christian’s, and ours in the audience.
That’s another thing: it’s good to be able to craft energetic, entertaining musical numbers, but there’s the danger of ending up with a futile, purposeless costume revue. This never happens here because, as familiar and melodramatic as the story can be, it still involves us completely. We really feel for these passionate lovers doomed to hide their affair. When we see Satine for the first time, we fall in love with her along with Christian and we root for him, for them, through the rest of the film. The delightfully twisted musical numbers that punctuate their tale aren’t gratuitous but integral to the drama. Most every important declaration is made through song, be it Christian belting out Elton John‘s Your Song (“How wonderful life is, now you’re in the world…”), Satine serenading him with Come What May (one of the movie’s few originals, and a great one at that), or the both of them discoursing about love with lyrics from famous songs by The Beatles, Kiss, Phil Collins, U2, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, David Bowie and Dolly Parton. Plus, not only do the songs fit in thematically, they’re also reinvented in original ways: Queen‘s The Show Must Go On becomes opera, The Police‘s Roxane becomes a tango and Madonna‘s Like a Virgin becomes a show tune!
Then there’s the outrageous sets and costumes, the frantic choreography, the endless variety of camera angles and editing tricks… And above all, love, as communicated by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in what could be career peaks for both. Kidman is just lovable, sexy, warm and goofy, nothing like the icy bombshell she once appeared to be. McGregor is at the other end of the spectrum from diving into toilets, all charm and idealism, love-obsessed writer, blue-eyed dreamer… And when put together, extraordinary chemistry erupts, they just gel together, they BELONG with one another! And they can sing too! Who knew these two had such nice voices? They’re nicely surrounded by a cast of enjoyably caricatural supporting characters, from Leguizamo’s high-on-absinthe dwarf to Broadbent’s life of the party burly man and Roxburgh’ moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash of a villain.
“Moulin Rouge!” is what film lovers have been waiting for all year. Here’s a movie that makes you giddy with joy and eager to see it again and again. Spectacular Spectacular indeed!
NOTE: You can obviously feel my love for Moulin Rouge! in the above review, but I wish I’d gone all out with a multi-part love letter to the film like the one Nathaniel Rogers wrote on The Film Experience. His photo montages are particularly priceless, as you can see below: