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By Tim Merrill | May 30, 2001

By the time Lautrec’s gang has dragged Christian into the club, Luhrmann finally decides to calm down and get out of his own story’s way. And just in time for the grand entrance of the club’s brightest star, Nicole Kidman’s perfectly named Satine. She’s lowered into the dancehall on a swing, purring “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The sight of her gliding over hundreds of slavering male extras is quite something, not least as a showcase for Kidman’s exquisite legs.
For all her pearlescent beauty and fiery red hair, Kidman has sometimes come off a bit flinty onscreen. But from her entrance on, she warms up nicely. Just as Satine gets going on “Material Girl,” however, she swoons and nearly falls into the crowd: true to tradition, she’s deathly ill with the consumption, don’t you know.
Unsurprisingly, it’s love at first sight for Christian. But it turns out that Satine is also the most prized courtesan in Paris, and she’s been promised by Zidler to the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) in exchange for money to convert the Moulin Rouge into a proper theatah.
Somehow, Satine gets it into her pretty head that poor Christian is the Duke, and she invites him up to her outlandish, elephant-shaped boudoir. Again, Luhrmann loses control of his comedy faculties, mauling us with a bizarre mistaken-identity seduction scene that forces Kidman to squeal and writhe spastically on the floor. All the flailing actually manages to make La Nicole look a bit foolish, and if that was Luhrmann’s intention he succeeds – but why would he want to?
Who knows? The only laugh earned in this exasperating interlude is by the look of absolute horror on Satine’s face when it’s revealed that Christian is in fact not the Duke, but merely a writer. It’s a look that will have writers the world over…well, wishing to hell they were dukes.
It must be added that for an alleged musical, Moulin Rouge is a musical experience only on occasion, when the characters are given room to breathe and the songs allowed to speak – sing – for themselves. The first moment of true transcendence occurs after Satine has duly done the unwise thing and fallen in love with Christian. Kidman saunters out onto the roof of her giant gilded elephant, lets loose with the soaring chorus of “One Day I’ll Fly Away”…and, at long last, liftoff! The heart is warmed, the spirit is lifted, the high is attained. It’s a stellar moment, and well worth the wait.
Remarkably, Moulin Rouge more or less maintains this level of beauty for the duration. Once Luhrmann decides that his musical might benefit from actually highlighting his two gorgeous stars as they burst into joyful song – what the classic Hollywood musical is all about, after all – Moulin Rouge works on you like a charm. (It doesn’t hurt that Kidman and MacGregor are both surprisingly strong singers.) There are several other powerful musical moments to follow: “Roxanne” is well served by its staging as an anguished tango, “The Show Must Go On” as Satine’s pained reaffirmation of her mercenary nature.
But the song lyrics must constantly jostle for attention with the visual delights. By overcutting his images, Luhrmann undercuts the emotion. In his obnoxiously overdirected Romeo + Juliet, hard as Luhrmann tried to impress with his gimmicks, it was Bill Shakespeare – abetted by talented cutie-pies Claire and Leo – who did the heavy lifting. Here too, the reliable doomed lovers tale manages to shake off every bell and whistle Luhrmann weighs it down with. The emotional charge between Kidman and MacGregor is strong and true and the two of them end up moving us, turning jaded skeptics into teary-eyed believers.
Needless to say, all does not end well for Satine and Christian. The teenage girl seated next to me was a quivering wreck for the entire second half of the picture – I can’t imagine the state she must have been in watching Titanic. Amazingly, she also seemed responsive to every single song cue, even good old “All You Need is Love.” (Her folks must have slipped her the Beatles’ 1 last Christmas; the Moulin Rouge soundtrack should follow it into her CD player.) If this girl tells two friends and they tell two friends and so on…look out. It’s “Grease” time.
The musical mélange of Moulin Rouge is clearly destined to knock ’em dead in West Hollywood, the West Village and other locales where people can correctly pronounce the title (hint: it’s Moo-lan, not Moo-lon). But, proving that select audiences everywhere really are starved for something new and different, I’ve never seen anything like the reaction Moulin Rouge received last weekend in college-town Westwood. The house was packed, and there must have been ten rounds of applause: before the film began, following every musical number, at the finale, after the very last credit rolled.
If this film plays half as well in the Heartland (as Hollywood seems to have officially named the wide stretch of land between New York and Los Angeles), Baz Luhrmann may well end up something of a cultural hero. Despite all its silliness, Moulin Rouge does deserve to succeed – because here in the 21st Century, we certainly don’t see new and different every day.
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