Truth. Freedom Beauty. Love. The Bohemian ideals flash on the screen and fall from the characters' lips at every opportunity. But, as Ewan McGregor tells us time and again, "This is a story about Love." And what a love story it is. Moulin Rouge is love story so wild, strange and beautiful that it blows a certain competing pseudo-romance right out of the water.
McGregor is Christian, an aspiring writer who comes to turn-of-the-century Paris to live the Bohemian lifestyle. He settles in Mon Martre, a kind of free-flowing artists paradise right in the middle of the sprawling city. At the center of it all is the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub/brothel where the rich and powerful mingle with poor but inspired. By chance, Christian meets Toulouse Lautrec, a dwarf painter/actor and his bizarre cohorts, including a narcoleptic Argentinian and a ghoulish piano player. The crew is writing the show of all shows: Spectacular, Spectacular, set to be performed at the Moulin Rouge and starring the jewel of the house, Satine, played wonderfully by Nicole Kidman. Also in on the deal is the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harry Zidler who, as played by the incredible Jim Broadbent, steals the show. For Spectacular, Spectacular to be able to play, Zidler must get funding from the evil Duke of Worcester, who falls in love with Satine. Unfortunately, Satine is already in love with Christian, and this is basically the crux of the film.
Moulin Rouge is incredible to look at. Director Baz Luhrmann has drawn from every source you can think of to create a brilliant mosaic of a movie. Jerky cinematography from the teens, film-noir, big budget musicals, seventies glitz and cutting edge special effects are all thrown into the mix. The audience is treated to soaring shots of Paris that the camera suddenly whooshes deep into at breakneck speed. The sets are amazing, both those for the film, and those for the play within. The costumes are dazzling, literally. At one point Satine swings into the Rouge dressed in diamonds. Often, visionary directors will tend to overplay their hand and lose the audience in their orgy of style. See, for example, Mars Attacks, by Tim Burton. Or don't. I was concerned going into this movie that it would suffer a similar fate, but Luhrmann avoids a common mistake; he doesn't sacrifice substance for style.
The story is simple, but sometimes simple stories are the best. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy, but has to hurt him to save him and everyone else. Girl is promised to another. This is the premise for just about any love story you can find, although rarely are they done this well. The reason is that most movies muck everything up with extra details, plot twists, and situations because the writers can't imagine that the simple story is enough. Luhrmann keeps the story simple and succeeds by focusing his energy on his bizarre cast of characters and his complex, but completely integral soundtrack.
It is important to mention that Moulin Rouge is a musical. This is not to say that there is no talking at all, but the characters do sing to one another, and the songs move the storyline along. Luhrmann, in keeping with his cinematic theme, has chosen songs from all across the spectrum, with no concern as to whether they fit the time period. Everything from The Sound of Music to Roxanne and everyone from Paul McCartney to Lil' Kim are used. They are woven marvelously into the storyline in a technique that works so well here for the same reason in failed so miserably in A Knight's Tale. Luhrmann had the guts to actually use the songs; really integrate them, instead of using them as little more than background. In Moulin Rouge each song is a little show in itself, some heartbreaking, some thrilling, and some hilarious, as in the case of Zidler's lecherous performance of Madonna's Like a Virgin.
Moulin Rouge is not for everyone. It is, in a word, strange, and it takes a little while to adjust to it's frenetic pace and flashing imagery. It's certainly not typical, but I think that's one of it's strengths. Every now and then Hollywood will release something that blasts convention and forges boldly ahead in untried territory. Unfortunately, this is usually done by thrusting something in the public's face that they really didn't want to see, as in the case of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. That movie, too, was avante garde and visually groundbreaking, but who could sit through it without getting sick? Baz Luhrmann has no interest in challenging the viewer's sense of morality or good taste, rather he challenges the viewer's artistic sense. Moulin Rouge will give you something that you've rarely seen before: a wildly unconventional cinematic work of art that you'll be clamoring to see again. Grade: A
Moulin Rouge is rated R for adult situations.
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