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‘Moulin Rouge’ Stands Out as a Technicolor Fantasy

Director Luhrmann’s Newest Doesn’t Lack in Substance What it Revolutionizes in the Art of Dazzle

By Fred Choi

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Written by Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce

Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Rated PG-13

The plot of of the new film Moulin Rouge is something like Shakespeare in Love meets La Boheme, but the feel of the film itself includes the dizzyingly fast-paced editing of an MTV music video, the garish glamour of Strictly Ballroom, the melodrama of Bollywood, the society of La Traviata, and the stark colors of Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting.

The clear mastermind behind all of it is director Baz Luhrmann, who also shares writing credits with Craig Pearce. The duo was also responsible for the hilariously offbeat Strictly Ballroom (1992) and their popular and oftentimes clever 1996 modernization of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is unsurprising that Luhrmann views Moulin Rouge as the last in a trilogy of movies he calls his “red curtain” movies.

For anyone familiar with his previous two films, half the fun is spotting the elements in Moulin Rouge which have been borrowed from his other works (the most obvious being the “L’amour” sign outside Christian’s window, which actually dates back to Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme for the Sydney Opera House. Another is the green absinthe which the bohemians drink, which recalls the hallucinogens taken by Romeo and his friends.) However, like a director who knows that he is working on his final film, Luhrmann indulges himself to an extreme level and packs Moulin Rouge with so many punches, especially in the first half hour, that it is difficult not to feel a little bruised.

The movie’s opens with a completely bewildering swirl of images in which we meet our hero, Christian (wonderfully played by Ewan McGregor), a writer who escapes the world of the bourgeoisie to pursue a new life. Christian falls into the company of a group of “bohemians” (the most memorable of which are John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec and Jacek Koman as “The Narcoleptic Argentinian”) and agrees to join their production, fancifully entitled, “Spectacular Spectacular.”

The bohemians’ scheming and a fortuitous case of mistaken identities culminates in a raunchy and farcical meeting of Christian and Satine (the irresistibly lovely Nicole Kidman), the star of the Moulin Rouge and a top-priced courtesan, and the beginning of their secret romance. The remainder of the film follows the conflicts between the true love of Christian and Satine and Satine’s illness, her desire to be a real actress, and her duty to the Moulin Rouge. All of these are manifested in the form of the greasy Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who, believing that Satine loves him, is funding a complete renovation of the Moulin Rouge and a new show.

From the first moments of the film it is clear that economy or subtlety have no place in Luhrmann and Pearce’s world. The presentation is highly stylized and scenes tend to be familiar “types,” such as the Victorian farcical scene in which an illicit lover is hidden and hurriedly concocted excuses grow progressively ridiculous as more and more people contribute. Despite the familiarity, these scenes are entertaining as Luhrmann and Pearce shape the material into memorable, over-the-top moments with their characteristic wit.

The film’s most intriguing concept is its use of anachronistic songs. The opening scene at the Moulin Rouge features a catchy remake of “Lady Marmalade” and Nicole Kidman’s performance of “Material Girl” juxtaposed with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Songs also function as dialogue and help build scenes. The riotously funny razzle dazzle treatment of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” surfaces in a scene in which Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge (Jim Broadbent), hurriedly gives an excuse for Satine’s failure to meet the Duke as demanded.

The use of these songs is clever and wildly creative, and oftentimes surprisingly effective, such as Christian’s first profession of love in the form of Elton John’s “Your Song” and the tango-fied version of the Police’s “Roxanne.” In context, the use of these modern songs becomes more than just a gimmick or a nostalgic effect, and hearing these pop love songs sung as true expressions of love is refreshing. They leads us to reexamine the emotion behind the familiar songs.

Although the supporting characters generally lack depth and stick to their “type,” the development of Christian and Satine is generally believable. The stylized form and the outrageous humor rarely allow the audience to get too close to the lovers. Yet McGregor and Kidman’s fine acting within the familiar story, as with the skillful use of the pop love songs, causes us to reexamine the emotions behind the story. And for those wondering “can they sing?” The answer is an emphatic yes. And for that Moulin Rouge is a Technicolor fantasy worth seeing.