Screenplay : Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), John Leguizamo (Toulouse Lautrec), Jim Broadbent (Harry Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Worcester), Garry McDonald (The Doctor), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinian)
In Moulin Rouge, director Baz Luhrmann has finally found a form that is fitting to his uncompromisingly bombastic style. His previous two films, the independent Australian hit Strictly Ballroom (1992) and the hyperkinetic adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), were leading up to this: a full-blown musical, the likes of which I don't think anyone has ever seen.
The musical genre fits Luhrmann like a glove because both rely on grandiosity and large-scale emotions. There is little room for subtlety when characters are expressing their emotions by bursting into song, which is fine for Luhrmann because everything he does runs contrary to restraint, subtlety, and finesse. He is openly, gleefully over the top, and he revels in contemporary cinema's ability to combine rapid-fire editing, complex soundtracks, and digital effects to render the unimaginable imaginable. There are so many reasons why Moulin Rouge shouldn't work, but against all odds, it does.
The story takes place in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the action takes place at the Moulin Rouge, the legendary Parisian nightclub and cabaret that was the center of bohemian life in Europe. With every ounce of imagination and energy he can muster, Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce (with whom he has worked on all his films) re-imagine the Moulin Rouge in fantastical terms as a theatrically decadent, extravagant palace of pleasures, luridly sensational and visually audacious.
With swinging cameras and rhythmic editing, Luhrmann takes us immediately into the heart of the sensationalism, and drops one of the movie's main conceits right in our laps: The story takes place in 1899 ("The Summer of Love" in Paris), but the music is predominantly variations on pop rock of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Although rescored, the songs of Madonna, The Police, David Bowie, Nirvana, and others are immediately recognizable, which poses the movie's biggest gamble. Will it be too disconcerting to hear Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reimagined as an anthem sung by the pleasure-hungry seekers who frequent the Moulin Rouge ("Here we are now, entertain us!")?
Amazingly enough, it isn't. The music editors mold the songs and make them fit right into the narrative in a way that is so seamless and effective that you can recognize the source material, but are able to immediately forget it as something exterior to the world of the narrative. Even though we are told the story takes place at the dawn of the 20th century , we are immediately sucked into the realization that it actually takes place in no particularly time or location at all.
Moulin Rouge may be the ultimate exercise in postmodern pastiche, in which elements from any time period or location, genre or format, can be mixed and matched into a seamless whole that is, in and of itself, entirely new. This is especially true of the music, which cuts up songs and pastes them together into entirely new musical sequences. At one point, two characters are singing David Bowie's "Heroes," then they segue into a few lines from Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," and then conclude with several stanzas from Elton John's "Your Song," all the while making it appear as if all these separate parts are fused into an organic whole.
The plot of Mouline Rouge is as old as the oldest profession that plays so central a role: the conflict that follows when a seasoned courtesan falls in love. Nicole Kidman plays Satine, the most sought-after courtesan in the Moulin Rouge. The owner of the nightclub, Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent), has dreams of turning it into a legitimate theater with Santine as the main star. But, such a project requires a great deal of capital, which the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) is willing to invest. Of course, the Duke, being the despicable snake that he is, has certain interests of his own, namely Santine, whom he wants to essentially buy along with his interest in the Mouline Rouge.
Satine, however, ends up falling in love with Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young Englishman whose aspirations to be a writer and commitment to the bohemian principles of truth, beauty, freedom, and, above all, love, have led him to Paris with high hopes and youthful idealism. Once Satine and Christian fall in love, they must hide their relationship from the Duke, who still harbors the illusion that he can own her.
Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor generate quite a few sparks on-screen, and Luhrmann knows to slow down his narrative and visual audacity just long enough to allow them several long, smoldering scenes when more is conveyed by simple eye contact than could ever be sung or spoken (this was also true of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, where the most effective and intense scene was little more than Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio starring at each other through a fish tank). Luhrmann also gets good performances out of several other actors, notably Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy), who has the difficult assignment of being both a bad guy and a good guy, and John Leguizamo, who plays an anxious bohemian dwarf who often functions as the movie's conscience.
The entire story is told in flashback, and considering the tone, demeanor, and appearance of Christian as he types out his story, we know that it will have a tragic ending. Luhrmann gives us quick glimpses of the Mouline Rouge, empty and decaying, suggesting that all will not turn out well. He also supplies us with the information very early on that Satine is ill, which intensifies the melodramatic arc of the story that much more.
Moulin Rouge is deeply melodramatic, yet the filmmakers are so invested in the story and the characters' emotions that it's hard not to be caught up in it, as well. The movie's energy and idealism are infectious, and even its use of pop-rock lyrics (the lyrics to Elton John's "Your Song" are crucial in this respect) to convey emotion manages to transcend the simplicity of the source material.
Yet, it is also wholly appropriate that pop songs are used because the naked emotionalism that fuels such music--the complete lack of embarrassment and simple honesty that speaks to our idealized selves--is exactly the same as that which fuels the movie. In the world of Moulin Rouge, idealism about the overpowering force of true love is still something that is not only real, but the entire basis of its existence.
©2001 James Kendrick