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Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann 
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Garry McDonald, Jacek Koman, Matthew Whittet, Kerry Walker, Caroline O'Connor, David Wenham, Christine Anu, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Lara Mulcahy, Kylie Minogue
 

The movie musical is making a comeback. Two of the most exciting films of the last year--Dancer in the Dark and O, Brother, Where Art Thou?--were musicals, and now comes Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. With star performances from Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor and eye-popping sets and costumes, Moulin Rouge is a worthy addition to this growing resurgence.

Loosely based on the Orpheus myth, Moulin Rouge features Christian (McGregor, Trainspotting) as a young bohemian who escapes to Paris, circa 1900, to discover "beauty, truth, freedom and, most of all, love." There he meets up with Toulouse-Lautrec (played with a lisp by John Leguizamo, Summer of Sam) and his band of actors. Christian, who fancies himself a writer, is named the group's playwright after a very brief audition.

The merry band's goal is to impress Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star singer and courtesan of the Moulin Rouge. If she agrees to perform in their new production, appropriately entitled "Spectacular Spectacular," then the Moulin Rouge's impresario Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent, Topsy Turvy) will agree to stage it. And the Moulin Rogue, as we see in the film's unbelievably lavish opening dance number, is the place to be.

Satine, however, would rather be anywhere else. Her hope is to convince a visiting duke (Richard Roxburgh, Oscar and Lucinda) into taking her away from all this and make her a real actress. After her performance, singing on a trapeze above the adoring Moulin Rouge crowds, she brings the duke to her boudoir. But a mix-up has occurred, and it's not the duke but Christian who stands next to her bed while Satine disrobes. Christian, who's flattered but also bewildered, tries to impress her with his poetry while Satine just wants to get down to business.

Of course, Satine soon finds out who's in her bedroom, but by then she's fallen in love with Christian. She agrees to star in Spectacular Spectacular and even uses her feminine wiles to get the duke to bankroll the production. He agrees but only as long as he believes he has Satine's affections. It soon becomes obvious, however, that she only has eyes for Christian.

This simple tale of young poor lovers struggling to stay together is a staple of theatrical musicals, and, indeed, Moulin Rogue feels like something you'd see on Broadway. The emotions are big, the acting is broad, and the swelling orchestra reaches a crescendo every few minutes. But in director Baz Luhrmann's hands, it succeeds. Its lush romanticism meshes perfectly with the musical numbers, and the combination sweeps the audience
along in a rush of love and tragedy.

One of Luhrmann's best moves is not to take himself too seriously. Unlike Dancer in the Dark, which is severe and overwhelming despite the music, Moulin Rouge has a nice comic touch. The first scene in Satine's boudoir is wonderfully funny, as Satine tries to seduce the duke but only ends up confusing Christian. This is followed by a hilarious sequence where Zidler, Satine, Toulouse Lautrec and the rest of his troupe try to convince the duke to front the money by enacting a small part of "Spectacular Spectacular." Given that the play hasn't even been written yet, this is a challenge worthy of the Second City improv performers, and it leads to a delightful scene.

The most consistent sources of comedy, though, are the songs themselves. Though a couple were written expressly for the film, most are famous hits from the last 30 years with new orchestration. Hearing Nirvana, Queen, The Police and U2 with musical arrangements and soaring voices brought continuous chuckles from the audience. But unlike a lot of cinema comedy these days, the laughter wasn't derisive or mean but one of appreciation. In a scene I like to call "Dueling Love Songs," Christian woos Satine with chestnuts like "All You Need is Love," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "I Will Always Love You." Satine tries to deflect his affections with "Silly Love Songs" and snippets of other, shall we say, anti-love songs. By taking lyrics that have become cliches and transposing them to a musical context, Luhrmann uses comedy to subvert our own cynicism and yet remind us of the magical power of love.

This is particularly true of Elton John's "Your Song" which recurs throughout the film. At first, it feels a little hokey; but each time Satine or Christian sing it, it takes on a greater force. By the end of the film, just hearing the tune is enough to stir your emotions. And when Toulouse Lautrec yells out at the end "The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return," it's gone from being a cliche to a mantra.

Moulin Rouge is helped enormously by Nicole Kidman's performance. Though she's undeniably sexy, she also has a nice comic touch and a vulnerability that are critical to the film's success. Though his part is smaller, Jim Broadbent as Harold Zidler is equally impressive. My friend Garth thought his performance was too broad, but I found it to be pitch-perfect. Yes, it's over-the-top, but that's appropriate for a film that embodies the big emotions of a stage musical. The only performer who seems out of place is Roxburgh as the duke.

Though the acting, dancing, story, and music might be easily transposed to Broadway, Baz Luhrmann's direction is impressively cinematic. With quick editing cuts, complicated tracking shots, and a plethora of zoom lenses, Luhrmann uses all of the tricks at his disposal. This, along with the truly grand set design (by Catherine Martin, Romeo+Juliet), creates a sumptuous visual feast.

Not everyone will be as enamored of Moulin Rouge. Like Dancer in the Dark or even O Brother, it requires that you lose yourself in another world, a world of powerful emotion and artifice, and intimately identify with its characters. Some audiences won't care to make that journey. For those who do, however, Moulin Rouge is a wonderful place to visit. 

J. Robert Parks 6/6/2001

 
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