Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Reviewed in June 2001
Director: Baz Luhrmann. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, John Leguizamo, Caroline O'Connor, Jacek Koman, Garry McDonald, Kerry Walker, Natalie Mendoza, Deobia Oparei, David Wenham, Kylie Minogue. Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.

Photo © 2001 20th Century Fox
It feels strange to call a multi-million dollar studio movie "courageous," since it's not clear that much is personally at stake if things go wrong. One wishes that movie-making courage had its own word, to avoid confusing the achievements of unorthodox entertainment with those of labor organization, battlefield valor, or what you will. Nonetheless, it is hard not to call Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! a brave movie, drunk on sentimental effusion and virtuoso camera devilry in an otherwise reactionary summer that so far belongs to a cynical, wisecracking ogre and shots taken from the point of view of bombs. Like Madonna, or Spike Jonze, or a really great drag show, Moulin Rouge! inhabits the singular position of being called "original" for seeming elaborately and exquisitely to borrow tricks and inspiration from everyone in the world, all at the same time. Pastiche this explicit, this outsized, has to be grounded in something or else it just comes across as everything plus the kitchen sink. Moulin Rouge! has kitchen sinks to spare, a whole waterworks of excess, surfeit, and multisensory panache, and the effect of the mise-en-scène is often joyous. Even more joyous for me, though, was the discovery that gurgling through all of Luhrmann's intricate pipery is real, unabashed emotion. This movie not only loves its audience, it loves entertaining them with a movie about love.

The pleasure of experiencing this Moulin Rouge! (advanced in every way from the lumbering 1952 biopic that shares its title) is so total that verbal description feels wholly inadequate. In some ways, trying to write about this movie is like trying to dance about a painting; the translation is bound to fail. Luhrmann's creative explosion begins as early as the 20th Century Fox logo, its familiar brass crescendos suddenly accompanied by a tiny conductor who pops up from the bottom of the screen and solicits the music from his silhouetted orchestra. The beguiling pixieishness of this opening gets a little over-cluttered in the first sequence, as our hero, Christian (Ewan McGregor), first meets the gaggle of Montmartre bohemians who crash through his ceiling and, to make a bizarre story short, land him a gig as a songwriter for the Moulin Rouge. These comrades, who include a narcoleptic Argentinian dancer and the iconic Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), seem to have breakfasted on LSD, and though their appearance doesn't lack for verve, they briefly conjure worries that the whole film will be uninterruptedly gaudy and frenetic.

In a way, the film is gaudy and frenetic, but lovingly and carefully so: Luhrmann throws us back into 1890s Paris not to offer us the same old narrative-heavy period hash that Hollywood has planted all over world history (the impulse that led John Huston's version so dreadfully astray), but to pack the screen with the synesthetic excess of fin-de-siècle extravaganzas. 19th-century stages were famous for their freakishly fantastic sets, plots, and characters: write me sometime and I'll tell you about the play where women fairies travel to the sea floor to arbitrate a war between the shellfish and the seaweeds, then onward to the moon where men are hastily regressing into gorillas. Anyway, the point is that the Moulin Rouge and its entire era pretty much give carte blanche to Luhrmann and his chief design collaborator (and wife), a mad genius named Catherine Martin, to visualize their most decadent imaginings. Here is where verbalization totally fails: to describe what Martin has achieved as art director and co-costume designer is wholly beyond me, except to say that her Moulin Rouge makes the most rococo scenes from The Cell or The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert look like Italian neo-realism. Chanteuses glide over parti-colored crowds like women made and born of pure moonlight. Kilometers of satin and taffeta. Killer wigs. Giant, gilded elephants with people dancing in the eyesockets. . .

Moulin Rouge! employs more cuts than Requiem for a Dream to squeeze all this stuff in, but because Luhrmann is so self-consciously the P.T. Barnum of the movie screen, and his subject is the transfusion of heart and blood into acknowledged clichés that are not embarrassed at being clichés, his hyperkinetic style isn't getting in the way of anything. (By contrast, Aronofsky's visual invention-run-amok had a tendency to two-dimensionalize the pain of his characters.) Moulin Rouge! is in many ways about Style, which leads to fun and amazement of countless varieties, but the movie is not really lightweight because it insists so convincingly about the humanistic import of spectacle. Luhrmann seems to believe that people learn from art how to love, how to recognize love, how to declaim their love. It is the giddiness of pure, shameless theatricalism that encourages us to shamelessly seek the giddy pleasures of amour. With an agility reminiscent of (and occasionally borrowed from) James Cameron's Titanic, Luhrmann fesses up early to the thinness of his characters, the sentimental predictability of his plot, and the inevitable fantasy, however historically grounded, of his setting. Neither the "real" Titanic nor the "real" Moulin Rouge can ever be returned to us, because both are by now so lacquered in the various new coatings of a century of cultural memories. They have been so consistently fantasized about that they have become fantasy, which is of course also true of romantic love.

Neither Cameron nor Luhrmann finds this view of love or of history depressing; in fact, they portray it as beautiful and rare. Both writer-directors use dizzy, reckless, doomed love affairs to make this point felt, though it's no secret in either case that only one half of the nascent couple will live to tell the tale. In Moulin Rouge!, the cloud of death hangs over Nicole Kidman's Satine, the epicene superstar who enchants the audience, onscreen and off, with a cooing medley of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Material Girl" but swoons into a faint before hitting her final note. Kidman, who by now deserves credit for being Hollywood's most gamely adventurous screen goddess, is confident enough of her beauty that she doesn't waste time calling attention to it. She is also a more than sufficient belter and hoofer, a willing dumbbell prop for Luhrmann's most farcical urges, and a succinct, poignant communicator of fragility and disappointment. She's been to most of these places before, though never all in the same film, and Luhrmann knows that. In several scenes and inserts, he even reproduces Jane Campion's blue color palette and her refracted, beveled-glass close-ups of Kidman from the much more somber milieu of The Portrait of a Lady, adding to his ongoing riff on the theme of fruitful, fortuitous pastiche from a wide range of sources. Ditto the tones, plotlines, and images he borrows from McGregor's Velvet Goldmine, Leguizamo's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newman, and Jim Broadbent's Topsy-Turvy.

The other characters orbiting around Kidman's singer/actress and McGregor's songwriter are, by design, even flatter: the fierce/fatherly club owner Zidler (Broadbent, also still visible in Bridget Jones's Diary); the snobby, snivelly aristocrat (Richard Roxburgh) who wants the heroine for himself; the devoted lady-in-waiting; the thuggish henchman; and the expected scamps, tramps, and misfits in the Moulin Rouge repertory of players. Smartly gauged overacting and whipsmart cutting and camera movement keep Moulin Rouge! miles above the standard "art crushed by commerce" plotline. To call the movie clichéd or excessive is totally beside the point, and maybe even complimentary, since Luhrmann so obviously intends a valentine to the unique pleasures of cliché and excess, when grounded in emotional sincerity. He's a More Is More kind of guy, but he knows often enough when to hold back and slow down, as when he selects Elton John's spare "Your Song" as the McGregor character's signature tune. It's the very humility of the composition, and of McGregor's gorgeous delivery, so incongruous in this explosively fertile context, that paralyzes Kidman and all the rest of us into believing what Christian sings. In fact, Luhrmann really only violates his admittedly broad tonal limits with some farewell moments between the star-crossed stars that are drawn out too long, given the certainty of their outcome.

Elsewhere, Luhrmann's efforts both dissect and reproduce those electric instants in pop life when memories, faces, feelings, sounds, and images collide into what we call love. For entire stretches of Moulin Rouge!, we cannot possibly know what we are going to see next: The Sound of Music recast as a Hindu passion play, for example, or a derby hat tossed Mary Richards-style into the air and bounced off the Eiffel Tower. These unanticipated, heart-quickening delights feel the way love feels, and moreover, they don't feel like most of the carbon-copy movies being released this summer, or at any other time of the year. A happy paradox about Moulin Rouge! is that a celebration of the familiar feels newer and harder to pin down than the so-called "cutting-edge" stuff that pours out of the studios and is deservedly gone in 60 seconds. Luhrmann's movie will hopefully garner the sort of timeless adoration it seeks to enact. I'm already a dévotée. Grade: A–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman
Best Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Best Art Direction: Catherine Martin; Brigitte Broch
Best Costume Design: Catherine Martin & Angus Strathie
Best Film Editing: Jill Bilcock
Best Sound: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Roger Savage, and Guntis Sics
Best Makeup: Maurizio Silvi & Aldo Signoretti

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Baz Luhrmann
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Nicole Kidman
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Ewan McGregor
Best Original Score: Craig Armstrong
Best Original Song: "Come What May"

Other Awards:
Producers Guild of America: Best Picture
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actor (Broadbent; also cited for Iris); Best Production Design (Martin)
National Board of Review: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Broadbent; also cited for Iris)
European Film Awards: Screen International Awards
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actor (Broadbent); Best Original Score; Best Sound
AFI Awards: Best Film Editing; Best Original Score
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy); Best Director; Best Actress, Musical/Comedy (Kidman); Best Actor, Musical/Comedy (McGregor); Best Supporting Actor, Musical/Comedy (Broadbent); Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score

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