Any illusions of cinematic normalcy fostered by Fox’s straight-laced advertising campaign for “Moulin Rouge!” are shattered the very second the film begins. The camera pushes in on the curtain of a theatre as an orchestra conductor comes into frame. The curtains part to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo, and the conductor dramatically waves his arms to the familiar bombastic melody of the Fox fanfare. Welcome to the wild world of director Baz Luhrmann.
For those who know nothing about the film outside of the publicity campaign, such a device may be really shocking, but anyone who knows anything more will only be taken mildly aback; after all, “Moulin Rouge!” is a musical. Not the type of dance musical that’s come in fashion in recent years, nor a film about musicians that hence has a lot of music–it is a musical in the classic, theatrical “burst into song” tradition. But that’s about the only thing traditional about Luhrmann’s bold, unique, and ultimately unforgettable feast for the senses.
Some heavy turbulence, however, must be weathered before the film truly takes shape. After that literal curtain raiser and some somber narration by Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer in 1900 Paris whose flashbacks to the year before make the meat of the film, Luhrmann launches into his hyperactive “Romeo + Juliet” style of quick cutting, wildly mobile camera work aided by flashy digital effects. But without the built-in story familiarity that came with “R+J,” the effect is even more chaotic and therefore irritating. As talented young English poet Christian arrives in Paris and falls into the company of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his group of absinthe-drinking Bohemians, everything is upped to a strained pitch: the frenetic editing and camera movements, the hammy performances, the labored physical and verbal gags, the indulgent surrealism. When a green fairy (Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue) appears on screen to warble “the hills are alive with the sound of music,” it’s hard to not react with mouth agape shock–and not in a good way.
Hard as it is to imagine, Luhrmann cranks the style to an even higher level when Christian makes his first visit to the Moulin Rouge, that infamous nightclub known for its can-can dancers. It’s understandable that Luhrmann would want to use all his tricks to convey the anarchic abandon of the club and all that takes place there. But the excess in not just the visuals but also the use of music (bits and pieces of familiar pop songs are performed one after another and sometimes on top of each other; for instance, women sing the familiar “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” as men bark out the chorus to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) pushes one dangerously close to a need for Excedrin. The relentless razzle dazzle obscures pertinent plot information, such as the introduction of the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), a wealthy man whom Moulin Rouge ringleader Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is angling to finance the club’s upcoming entertainment extravaganza, the aptly titled “Spectacular Spectacular.” Key to securing the funding are the seductive charms of Moulin Rouge’s crown jewel and the most famous courtesan in Paris, Satine (Nicole Kidman), a.k.a. “the Sparkling Diamond.”
Something does come across clearly in this sequence, and that is Christian’s immediate attraction to Satine, and with their subsequent meeting in the sultry star’s boudoir, Luhrmann finally settles down and begins to find his footing. Pressured to come up with a poem to recite, Christian suddenly bursts out into Elton John’s “Your Song,” setting the stage for one of the more transporting romantic moments I’ve seen on screen in a long time; so effective is the number–and so startling is McGregor’s fabulous singing voice–that one never questions Satine’s sudden reciprocal feelings for Christian. One is barely given a chance to catch one’s breath when the beautiful moment abruptly shifts back into one of near-cartoonish slapstick. That right there encapsulates the characteristic of “Moulin Rouge!” that takes even more adjusting to than the conceit of using contemporary pop music in a period context: the fluctuation between and the blend of two diametrically opposing musical theater forms–broad, vaudevillian comedy and operatic melodrama–to create something entirely new and different. To accept Luhrmann’s peculiar aim is to embrace the film; to reject it is to land on the “hate it” side of the debate that will inevitably arise with the film’s wide release.
Luhrmann has better luck with the drama than the comedy, which for the most part comes as flat-out silly. Leguizamo’s Toulouse Lautrec and his gang far from satisfy the second part of their “comic relief” designation, but his screen time is thankfully minimal. The comedy works better when tied to music, as in one late production number that twists a very familiar tune into something quite unexpected (it’s best to leave the song a surprise) and cheekily hilarious. The film gets better as it progresses largely because of the gradual shift into more serious and emotional territory. Ironically, Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have hardly come up with a screenplay of much weight. The central Christian-Satine-Duke love triangle storyline is simplistic; characters are accordingly thin; and the “love is above all” theme is reinforced to a nearly bludgeoning degree. But other aspects of the production, namely performance and music, come together in such a way as to imbue the material with convincing pathos. Kidman, who can carry a tune perfectly well (though nowhere nearly as well as her leading man), is particularly affecting and has a palpable rapport with the also-sympathetic McGregor. The songs chosen by Luhrmann and Pearce creatively and seamlessly move the plot forward, and the inventive use and staging of songs make for some genuinely powerful sequences.
Remaining constant through “Moulin Rouge!”‘s wild ride through a variety tones and styles is its eye-popping look. Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin’s radical vision of Paris and the Moulin Rouge achieves the two-pronged goal of being believable within the fin-de-siècle time period and serving a surreal enough backdrop for the flights of musical fantasy; of note is the gorgeous and historically correct elephant-shaped building that adjoins the club. The pièce de résistance are the vibrant and inviting colors of Donald McAlpine’s photography.
That one point of non-contention won’t be enough to prevent a dramatically divided audience reaction to “Moulin Rouge!” Musicals are already a hard sell in this cynical day and age, let alone one that dares to take the genre to even greater escapist extremes. But it’s that very quality that will win the film its share of admirers, and rightfully so. As with any experiment, certain choices along the way in “Moulin Rouge!” simply fail, but what counts is the end product–and what ultimately comes through is an undeniably imaginative work that is a glorious testament to the limitless and largely untapped possibilities of cinema.