The Moulin Rouge’s sparkling diamond and a penniless writer exchange a not-so-surreptitious love under a kitsch potpourri umbrella at the turn of the 20th century. It is a place where can-can dancers, bohemians, and other “beautiful creatures of the underground” entertain the rich, while keeping their ideals behind the curtain. Nicole Kidman stars as Satine, who plays her part as the star courtesan until she falls for Christian (Ewan McGregor). The Scottish emigrant is a smitten romantic searching for love’s meaning in, where else, the city of love, Paris, 1899.
Christian meets Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist who painted dancers from the decadent Paris cabaret. The movie focuses on his shrimpy stature and even though John Leguizamo has just a super-sized cameo, he is supposed to embody this bohemian idealism. Why not pull a real-life spokesman for the liberation-through-art philosophy, such as Wassily Kandinsky? But the painter is key in two junctures in the plot. Leading the poet on his first venture into the legendary club is the first. The second takes place just before the film’s finale. At a time when Christian is confused by Satine’s contradictory actions, Toulouse-Lautrec gently reveals what she must be feeling.
Fantastic images throw us into the front row with a collage of kicking garter-clad legs, black top hats and a boisterous chorus line. From Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” we understand our part — “Here we are now entertain us” — with those killer riffs and that backbeat. As we are enamored with the visual pastiche, Christian is enthralled by the scarlet-haired charismatic tart.
Satine and Christian begin their “courting” with a poetry reading in her private quarters. It quickly turns into a frenzied flirtation that transcends to a romantic musical moment — Christian shuts up her silly sexpot posturing with an Elton John ballad, “Your Song.” Those who expect a shallow Hollywood spectacle are half-right; the love story is touching, albeit predictable the moment Satine faints after singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” with a pinch of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Of course, it pales to Marilyn Monroe’s tantalizing “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Satine, who coughs blood and passes out for evenings at a time, has tuberculosis. Neither her lovelorn mate nor her duke-in-waiting, who “invests” in the cabaret’s new musical, suspect her ailment.
The outplay of the pseudo love triangle deepens with each silly love long, and Kidman’s oceanic eyes are at the film’s heart. But it is McGregor’s acting that anchors the plot’s flighty whimsy. Early on his comedic touches give a much-needed breather from the frantic pace, and later his heartache spurs us to find our romantic selves. But the movie disappoints on a few minor points.
The words Christian pushes on his typewriter are as inspiring as Doogie Howser’s diary entries. Also the wealth of material collected for the montage leaves little to the imagination. While the visuals are inventive, don’t expect much from the dialogue and story, no matter how universal. Its lowest point is when the Duke of Monroth, played by Richard Roxburgh, and Zidler, played by Shakespeare in Love’s Jim Broadbent, engage in a tête-à-tête with lyrics from “Like a Virgin” before breaking out in the Madonna song.
Finally, the film, which gleans from classic musical songs to current pop hits, could have dug deeper into its repertoire. Some song clips are repeated but do not gain additional meaning through their repetition. What would have been more apropos than to incorporate “Fame,” something from “A Chorus Line,” or something from Cher’s catalogue? The film does not bust from these complaints but they do keep it from surpassing some of the classic musicals of all time. I would bet, however, that Moulin Rouge! makes the musical genre trendy again.
The visionary escapade is directed by Baz Luhrmann, who brought us another movie filmed in Australia, Strictly Ballroom (1992). But you may remember him best from William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), another genre-hopping juxtaposition of eras with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, who adapted the Shakespeare play, wrote Moulin Rouge!
Written by Gala M. Pierce.