Studio film will also compete

PARIS — Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s 20th Century Fox-backed “Moulin Rouge” will open the 54th annual Cannes Intl. Film Festival in competition, organizers said Tuesday.

The Nicole Kidman/Ewan McGregor starrer, a musical set in the world of the infamous Paris nitery of its title, will be the first Cannes opener to compete for the Palme d’Or since Patrice Leconte’s “Ridicule” in 1996.

Following reaction to early test screenings and the unspooling of a promo reel, Fox also announced Tuesday that it has moved the film’s U.S. release date up to a summer slot. Fox will platform “Moulin Rouge” in a single run each in New York and Los Angeles bowing May 18, followed by a national launch June 1.

“I am particularly happy to welcome to Cannes a studio film that is in the finest show tradition to launch the festival,” fest chief Gilles Jacob said of “Moulin Rouge.”

That a Hollywood film will open Cannes indicates that recent Stateside visits by fest’s new artistic director Thierry Fremaux have paid off. As part of a trio of toppers at the fest with new managing director Veronique Cayla and Jacob, Fremaux has been assigned the task of luring the quality mainstream fare that Hollywood sometimes is reluctant to hand over.

Return to Cannes

In Tuesday’s statement, Jacob pointed out that the fest “discovered” Luhrmann in 1992, when it presented the Australian director’s first film, “Strictly Ballroom.”

That pic bowed in Un Certain Regard but was given a special screening thanks to great buzz. The $3 million film, which won the Prix de Jeunesse and was runner-up for the Camera d’Or in 1992, went on to earn nearly $30 million worldwide. The director followed that with “Romeo+Juliet” for Fox.

Luhrmann said he had “marvelous memories” of his Cannes debut, and that he was “especially gratified that a film financed by the U.S., almost entirely created in Australia and about French history and culture should be chosen by Cannes.

“I think the opening night of Cannes should be about heralding a new energy, and not just for the festival,” Luhrmann told Daily Variety. “I hope that night will mark the beginning of the return of musical cinema.”

Although featuring modern tunes, “Moulin Rouge” is set in the legendary Paris cabaret at the turn of the 20th century. McGregor plays a writer, plunged into the decadent world of the nightclub, who falls in love with its most notorious star (Kidman). Pic also stars John Leguizamo (as Toulouse-Lautrec), Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh.

“We always knew Baz was creating something very special with ‘Moulin Rouge,’ ” said Robert Harper, vice chairman of 20th Century Fox. “But after seeing the film this month, we were completely blown away by what he’s done — and we’re thrilled that the Cannes Film Festival agrees.”

Festival staff said Tuesday that the last Cannes opener to win anything at the fest was “The Victory Prize,” by Japan’s Nobulo Chibuya, which picked up best short film in 1964.

Ironically, it was a knee injury sustained in “Moulin Rouge” that forced Kidman to pull out of David Fincher’s “The Panic Room” earlier this year. In turn, Jodie Foster stepped down as Cannes jury president to replace her. The fest then appointed Liv Ullmann as jury prexy.

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