Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writing Credits: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Distributor: 20th Century Fox (USA 2001)
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 120 minutes

Since the birth of cinema over a hundred years ago, the most elusive and elemental artistic building blocks— Substance and Style — have been harsh mistresses to each new generation of filmmakers. Long before movies, in fact, artists of all disciplines debated the necessity, and even the very definitions, of these qualities. Theoreticians and critics have tried to weigh, measure, fight, ignore, and calculate the need for each. And from film noir to the French New Wave to Dogme 95, directors have searched for a balance of substance and style that leaves artistic integrity uncompromised, while achieving that indefinable but undeniable truth that makes a work of art an immortal classic.

In terms of style and substance, Baz Luhrman's ravishing fantasia MOULIN ROUGE is perhaps the most polarizing Hollywood film in decades. A swirling mix of color, music and panache, MOULIN ROUGE disregards history and dramatic depth as if they were toys left by errant children at the playground. Depending upon where you fall on the side of Substance or Style, this swirl of disparate influences — 19th century France, MTV, Broadway musicals, trip-hop, penny romance novels, and more— is either an overwrought, overblown trifle with hipster pretensions, or a beautiful, eloquent, mind-tripping meditation on the themes of beauty, truth, freedom, and love.

My apologies to the gods of Substance, but with MOULIN ROUGE, I'm firmly on the side of style. No matter what one may think of director Baz Luhrman or his film, it's impossible to discount the visual splendor he has concocted — a fin de siecle Paris that never truly existed except, perhaps, in the veils of memory. Can-Can dancers at the infamous nightclub of the title, brazenly flashing petticoats in every color of the rainbow, dance with an army of Fred Astaires under a blizzard of incandescent glitter. Outside, a faux-Indian Elephant serves as a luxurious apartment, next to a decadent windmill lit up like a Christmas tree. The people who inhabit this world sing their feelings in pop songs by Elton John, the Police, and U2. Reality? Hardly. If you're looking for that, try the Al Pacino flick down the street.

But if one is able to give oneself over to the heady mix of improbable fantasy that Luhrman paints with his broad brush, MOULIN ROUGE can be something akin to ecstasy. This requires one, however, to be open to a bevy of love's clichés made new — that true love can triumph over any adversity, and that love, like a lightning bolt, hits us upon first sight and never lets go. That's essentially what happens to Christian (Ewan McGregor), a wide-eyed young playwright whose innocence is matched only by his enthusiasm. Upon arriving in Paris, he quite accidentally gangs up with a group of hilarious bohemians led by the one and only Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo). In an inspired bit of exposition, Lautrec decides that Christian should be the author of their new play, Spectacular Spectacular, which they hope to present at the most unbelievable nightclub in the world, the Moulin Rouge.

And what a club it is - bawdy, kaleidoscopic, decadent, and breathtaking. On Christian's first visit to the club, he sees the club's star, the dancer Satine (Nicole Kidman), nicknamed "the sparkling diamond" by her legions of male fans. In the first of many musical numbers in the film, we recognize that Satine is both immeasurably lovely and, yes, a prostitute. The club's owner, Zidler (Jim Broadbent), has promised Satine to the unscrupulous, wealthy Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). In a classic mixup, though, Satine sees the young Christian first, and falls head over heels in…you know what. It's a scenario of love-versus-money that has dire consequences for the denizens of the Moulin Rouge.

But who really cares, when there's so much glorious eye candy to feast upon? The simply story, one suspects, isn't really the point here; no one seeing MOULIN ROUGE will find new insights about love and fidelity hidden inside. What is amazing, however, is the way this common story is told - with a blazing commitment to Style that is the indelible mark of Baz Luhrman (William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom). Mixing periods, styles, histories, and traditions together with eye-popping special effects, extravagant costumes, flamboyant makeup, and ornate costume designs, MOULIN ROUGE is a feast for the senses, one of the most utterly visual films ever made.

In this film, Luhrmann has added a new element, music, to his repertoire. MOULIN ROUGE singlehandedly brings back the movie musical; it is perhaps the most successful effort in the genre since Bob Fosse's Cabaret in 1972, a film (and a director) that Luhrman owes a debt of gratitude to. Instead of hiring a composer, however, Luhrman has adapted modern pop, rock, and soul songs for his candy-colored characters to sing. For the most part, the effort is a successful one, especial the repeated use of Elton John's Your Song as Christian's theme. Satine's opening number, a medley of Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend and Madonna's Material Girl, seems a natural match, and the Moulin Rouge's whirlwind dances - remakes of LaBelle's Lady Marmalade, DeBarge's Rhythm Of The Night, and a new thumping electronica number by Fatboy Slim, Because We Can —capture the energy and mood of the moment. Perhaps most sublime is The Police's "Roxanne", turned into a dissonant Argentinian tango expressing a sad fury over Satine being sold to the Duke.

Other efforts, sadly, are not as effective. The Nat King Cole standard that begins and ends the film, Nature Boy, seems too obvious, and Marc Bolan's Children Of The Revolution rings predictably jokey. Still, Luhrman seems aware of the absurdity of pop songs in a historical context: an inspired quickfire medley between Christian and Satine pokes fun at itself, quoting everything from McCartney to Phil Collins to Thelma Houston…and ends with the capper of them all, a very witty use of I Will Always Love You.

A film that flirts so dangerously with the edge of believability needs actors who can keep the scenes on solid footing, and on that score, MOULIN ROUGE turns out to be quite lucky. The passionate earnestness Ewan McGregor imbues in Christian is never done hammily; indeed, he makes a most effective romantic lead. Likewise, Nicole Kidman portrays Satine with equal amounts of seriousness and frivolity. An underrated comic performer in gems like TO DIE FOR, Kidman is as comfortable with the physical comedy her role demands as she is with its melodramatic moodswings. As the two lovers, McGregor and Kidman exhibit surprising chemistry, playing off one another as if they'd been doing it their entire lives.

Jim Broadbent, the superlative English character actor who has so often been a standout in his movies (The Crying Game, Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones' Diary), adds another formidable performance to his resume in MOULIN ROUGE. As Zidler, Broadbent achieves the almost impossible, zinging like a boomerang between madcap silliness and quiet dramatic moments. He also manages to steal a scene or two from the leads; his hilarious rendition of Madonna's Like A Virgin, replete with waiters doing a Busby Berkeley routine behind him, will have even the grumpiest audience members falling out of their chairs with laughter.

John Leguizamo, as the diminuitive Toulouse-Lautrec, doesn't have much of an opportunity to shine in his small part; the British pop stars Christine Anu and Kylie Minogue have even less on-screen time. But the magic of MOULIN ROUGE isn't in the smaller details. It's a grand vision, a fizzy cocktail that explodes with marvelous flavors but is as transitory as the bubbles in your glass. In an age where spectacle seems back in style (and where lightweight scripts like Titanic and Gladiator can go home with Oscars), MOULIN ROUGE may be just the thing the zeitgeist is waiting for. Like a night at that legendary Parisian nightclub, it may not last in the memory - but boy, what a pleasure it was to experience.

- Gabriel Shanks

Read Jill's review of MOULIN ROUGE


Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti, © 2003 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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