Review: 'Moulin Rouge'
Screens Tonight As Part Of FilmOut's Monthly Film Series
WARNING! Potential danger of sensory overload while watching “Moulin Rouge”. Okay, you’ve been warned. Baz Luhrmann, the in your face, over-the-top Australian director of Strictly Ballroom and 1996’s Romeo and Juliet— is at it again. No one would ever accuse Luhrmann of being subtle and his film, “Moulin Rouge” (screening tonight at 7pm at the Birch North Park Theater courtesy of FilmOut) is no exception. The film travels back to turn of the century Paris to spin a bold, outrageous love story as only he could do.
Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” has nothing to do with John Huston’s 1952 film of the same name or any of the previous French films of the same title. The only connection is the local-- Paris’ famed Moulin Rouge nightclub. Technically, Luhrmann sets his film in 1899 but don’t expect period authenticity. Instead, Luhrmann has the past and present collide with explosive force to create an epic romantic musical fantasy. Although the film opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, you can understand why the French didn’t embrace it—it’s an Aussie director messing with their culture and creating a film that really has little connection to France. Luhrmann’s film is an undeniably expensive epic but the money’s up on the screen and it has allowed Luhrmann to do whatever his imagination dreamed up (which will probably make his critics cringe).
The story is quite basic: penniless young writer meets beautiful courtesan, falls instantly and passionately in love but an evil, rich duke tries to tear the lovers apart. Christian, the young writer, believes in truth, beauty, freedom and above all love. The naïve youth longs to be a part of the Bohemian artistic community and its revolutionary spirit. Through a twist of fate, he meets artist Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and is commissioned to write a production called Spectacular, Spectacular for Satine (Nicole Kidman), the beautiful courtesan and star of the Moulin Rouge. Christian tries to endow the show with his belief that “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” But some hardened realists counter his idealistic anthem with the more cynical notion “never fall in love with a woman who sells herself, it always ends bad.”
The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) wants to make Satine a star of the legitimate stage and is willing to finance the show and the transformation of the Moulin Rouge from a dance hall into a theater. But of course there’s a price to pay and that price is Satine, who must give herself to the Duke. But Satine has fallen in love with Christian and plays a risky game by trying to deceive the Duke. The whole charade becomes the thinly veiled plot of the play Spectacular, Spectacular. Will love triumph? The answer lies in the songs, which tell us all you need is love, love is a many splendored thing and love will lift you up where you belong. You’ve heard these cliches before but Luhrmann plays them with new vigor and enthusiasm.
“Moulin Rouge” is a film that you will either love or hate. There can be no middle ground. Luhrmann’s breathless extravagance will either charm and dazzle you or instantly repel you with its force. From the opening moments, when thick red drapes part to reveal scratchy sepia-toned images and a man frantically conducting the 20th Century Fox theme, you know you’re in for a film that will be self-consciously self-reflexive and drenched in pop culture references. Visually, Luhrmann takes his cue from Toulouse Lautrec’s famous poster art for the Moulin Rouge. The film’s images and characters are vibrantly exaggerated and grotesque and the screen is awash in bold colors. The opening scenes of the Moulin Rouge are like entering the world’s most popular club—the din is so overwhelming that you can barely hear yourself think. Patrons and dancers are packed in like sardines and you start to feel dizzy from the sheer noise level and mass of people swirling around you.
Luhrmann’s MTV inspired cutting style never lets a shot rest for more than a few seconds and you feel bombarded by images. But this is not hollow style. It’s a style that perfectly conveys the Moulin Rouge and its inhabitants. This is clubbing to the max. And Luhrmann does slow the pace for later, more intimate scenes.
The most inspired aspect of the film is Luhrmann’s use of music. He merges songs, weaving the lyrics of multiple pop tunes of various eras together into a delightful musical montage. So Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend slips into Material Girl and back again in a sly pop culture reference that takes us from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna in a flash. Luhrmann also makes unexpected use of songs. Like a Virgin is sung by the marvelous Jim Broadbent as the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge. He must come up with a lie to satisfy the Duke when Satine stands him up yet again, so he pretends that the Duke makes Satine feel “like a virgin.” And as the song flames the Duke’s passions, Roxburgh allows the Duke to bare his teeth in a reference to Dracula.
Luhrmann manages to mock cliches and conventions while simultaneously surrendering absolutely to them. The lovers sing on a rooftop and casually step off the building and into the clouds as fireworks light up the sky. Their surroundings reflect their emotions in an exaggerated display of Hollywood movie musical traditions. It’s all terribly silly but at the same time achingly sincere. And that’s Luhrmann’s charm. As he did in Strictly Ballroom and Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann displays a romantic soul mixed with a hip pop art sensibility. In all three of his films he manages to sweep audiences up in his romantic spirit because at the heart of each film is a sweet belief in the power of love.
The title Spectacular, Spectacular could apply to Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” but it would be an understatement. Luhrmann has reinvented the movie musical for a new generation. He has reinvigorated the tired genre with humor, extravagance, the best bells and whistles money can buy and most importantly with a true joie de vivre. What makes Luhrmann’s film so irresistible to me is that he makes films with passion and seems to be having so much fun (even though this latest tale does take a tragic turn) that the enjoyment is contagious. So suspend your disbelief, throw caution to the wind and be adventuresome. Surrender to the audacious onslaught of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.”