“Moulin Rouge” is a tour de force of artifice, a dazzling pastiche of musical and visual elements at the service of a blatantly artificial story. Virtuoso Aussie helmer Baz Luhrmann displays often amazing resourcefulness as he mixes a multitude of film and song styles to relate a quintessential tale of la vie boheme, but the fact that he is dealing broadly with archetypes and conventions restricts the picture’s effectiveness to its brilliant surface. Beginning its giant promo push with the opening-night slot at the Cannes Film Festival, 20th Century Fox will get plenty of publicity mileage out of the exploitable musical and fashion elements as well as stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and many buffs and musical fans will respond positively. But pic’s ability to go the distance at the B.O. will rest largely on whether young viewers in the 15- to 30-year-old range will engage with the story and Luhrmann’s showbizzy treatment of familiar rock tunes: It’s questionable.
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Strictly in terms of musical razzle-dazzle, Luhrmann outstrips anything Hollywood has produced in years and now bears comparison to the likes of Busby Berkeley in his ability to conceptualize and physically energize production numbers. Drawing for inspiration on sources as diverse as pioneer silent-film fantasist Georges Melies and rap-era music sampling, the director surpasses his previous features, “Strictly Ballroom” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet,” even if the new work almost certainly will prove less congenial to general audiences.
Luhrmann applies his feverish imagination even to the presentation of the opening logo, as the widescreen is filled by a red curtain that is gradually drawn back to reveal the Fox trademark to the accompaniment of an onscreen conductor leading the familiar fanfare. An extraordinary succession of shots, in which models and effects combine to magnificently evoke the poetic realism of studio-fabricated silent cinema, transports the viewer back to Paris, 1900, where melancholy young scribe Christian (McGregor) is tearfully writing (and narrating) the story of his doomed love affair with Satine (Kidman), the late star of the Moulin Rouge and Montmartre’s most beautiful courtesan.
In a breathtaking swirl of movement and color, the heady, voluptuous, delirious world of Paris’ celebrated nightclub/dance hall is brought to vibrant life. Like everything else in the picture, the Moulin Rouge here is a reinterpretation of the real thing designed with an eye to giving it contemporary relevance; the men might be dressed in black tie and top hat, but the music slips breathlessly from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to “Material Girl” as Satine descends spectacularly from the ceiling via trapeze and picks Christian out of the crowd to dance.
With the finagling of pal Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), Christian ends up in Satine’s boudoir (a fabulous stand-alone apartment conceived as a bejeweled Indian-style elephant, one of many magnificent creations by production designer/co-costume designer Catherine Martin). With the star mistakenly believing Christian is the “Duke,” an endlessly wealthy man Satine is supposed to bed so that Moulin Rouge owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent) can secure financing to turn the venue into a legitimate theater, Satine is compliant with the eager and earnest young writer. To the amusingly effective strains of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song,” the beautiful young bohemians fall in love, and act one comes to a rousing close with Christian’s belief (via the Beatles) that “All You Need Is Love” in overcoming Satine’s pragmatic denigration of “Silly Love Songs.”
The lovers’ bliss could scarcely be more fleeting, however. In exchange for his funding, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) demands of Zidler not only the deed to the Moulin Rouge but exclusive “rights” to Satine. Worse, though, is the fact that Satine is dying, of that classic 19th-century disease consumption. Prone to fainting spells and coughing up blood, she spends every possible moment with Christian, avoiding her command performances with the increasingly agitated Duke while helping Christian, along with Toulouse-Lautrec and his comic-relief cohorts, to write the opening attraction for the new theater, an epic musical that neatly reflects the ongoing melodrama of the Christian-Satine-Duke triangle.
With the Duke’s unrequited obsession and incensed jealousy having passed the boiling point, everything comes together on opening night, as theatrical and “real” life converge and play out onstage in full public view.
Although the drama necessarily becomes darker and more threatening in the second hour, Luhrmann’s wit remains in strong supply. A high point is reached when Zidler launches into an outlandish rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in an attempt to convince the anxious Duke that the absent Satine is busy “purifying” herself. Also inspired is a tango version of Sting’s “Roxanne” that dramatizes the perils of falling in love with a prostitute.
For all the effectiveness of the storytelling, which despite its musical and visual flamboyance is nicely balanced overall between song-driven narrative and dramatic scenes, the love story never truly takes on a life of its own that rouses viewer emotion and becomes moving in its own right. Tale is so clearly a synthetic recycling of “La Boheme” elements that the characters remain constructs, exaggerated caricatures that are vibrant yet bloodless. By the time the predestined end arrives, the fact that Luhrmann’s accomplishment is one of style rather than of substance has become perilously clear.
This is not at all the fault of the performers, who throw themselves into their roles with abandon and deliver with enthusiasm to burn. With her alabaster-and-flame look amplified by a scar of red lipstick and dazzling costumes, Kidman’s Satine evokes screen goddesses from Dietrich to Garbo to Monroe, and the actress’s own iconic status is exalted in the process. McGregor is the real surprise, however, as he energetically bares more honest emotion than he ever has onscreen and reveals an outstanding voice (all thesps did their own live singing). Broadbent impressively breaks through the cartoon-like constraints of his makeup and garb to offer a quasi-human impresario, while others, including Roxburgh as the Duke and Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec (whose painterly endeavors are ignored), work strictly in the realm of caricature, to greater and lesser effect.
Shot entirely in-studio, mostly in Australia but with some pickup work done in Madrid, the production represents an assembly of a staggering number of details, particularly in the design and musical departments. It’s difficult to imagine the amount of work that went into the creation of the soundtrack, which is based mostly on elements from pop standards rather than more esoteric or edgy works, while Martin’s efforts on the production design and — with Angus Strathie — on the costumes cannot be overpraised. Donald M. McAlpine’s lustrous lensing maximizes these contributions while repeatedly finding the most striking angles from which to photograph the stars, and both he and the f/x crew have gone beyond the usual smooth CGI look of most modern films by combining elements in a satisfyingly rough, hand-hewn manner.