Moulin Rouge

"I believe in truth, beauty, freedom and, above all things, love."

Like Being John Malkovich two years ago, Moulin Rouge must have been greenlighted because of some businessman’s impromptu moment of insanity and courage. It’s a manic musical that blends an old-fashioned story with contemporary songs and stunning visual direction. It plunges bravely into the realm of absurdity and emerges an exhaustingly exhilirating experience. For sheer audacity, it is unmatched this year.

The plot is the traditional stuff of musicals. Christian (Ewan McGregor), a struggling writer, teams up with midget (!) artist Toulouse-Loutrec (John Leguizamo) to write a play about “truth, beauty, freedom and, above all things, love.” The play is to star Satine (Nicole Kidman), the courtesan woman who drives the men wild nightly at the Moulin Rouge with her performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

The Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) agrees to finance this production on the condition that Satine signs a contract giving him exclusive rights to her various favors. Of course, by this time, Satine and Christian have fallen madly in love and vow to pursue a covert affair. And, to fan the flames a little, Satine is dying of tuberculosis, a fact that is known to everyone but Christian.

Moulin Rouge was directed by Baz Luhrmann, the “crazy Aussie” who made waves with his stylized, modern 1996 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, his furious zooms, rat-a-tat editing style, and insane production design would have seemed ridiculous anywhere else, but Luhrmann takes it so far over the top that to laugh at it would do no good, because he’s aware of its absurdity and is consciously going along with it.

There is an exuberance at work here the kind of which I haven’t seen in ages. These are cynical times, and most movies go for “edge” and irony that prevents them from doing anything like this. Here, the characters not only break into song — performed with surprising aptness by the actors themselves — they dance on rooftops while the sky all but explodes above them. The scenes in the Moulin Rouge (always accompanied by the red windmill in the background) are dizzyingly energetic and utterly surreal.

The eclectic selection of musical numbers only adds to the fun. Moulin Rouge samples, among others, “The Sound of Music”, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Lady Marmelade”, “I Will Always Love You” and “Like a Virgin”. The list goes on and on.

I mentioned that the actors do their own singing. Their voices, especially McGregor’s, are surprisingly strong. They perform this exercise in excess with a completely straight face, and the movie would not have worked otherwise. Moulin Rouge is a lot of things, but it isn’t satire.

This could all have been embarassing. It could have been laughable. Instead, the movie comes alive and jumps off the screen. My heart leapt at the film’s anything-goes exuberance, and its shocking fearlessness. Hollywood has all but abandoned the musical and Luhrmann brings it back with a vengeance. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss sums it up best: “The film dances. The heart sings.”

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Score: C+

10 Years

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Score: B-

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Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

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Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

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Im Sang-Soo, 2013

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