Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! (2001)


(director/writer: Baz Luhrmann; screenwriter: Craig Pearce; cinematographer: Donald M. McAlpine; editor: Jill Bilcock; cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), John Leguizamo (Toulouse-Lautrec), Jim Broadbent (Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (Duke of Worcester), Christine Anu (Arabia) Garry McDonald (the Doctor), Kylie Minogue (Green Fairy), Kerry Walker (Marie), Jacek Koman (The Unconscious Argentinean); Runtime: 126; 20th Century Fox; 2001)

“It’s directed with an eye for color, especially the color of rouge, by the pop-musical enthusiast, the Australian, Baz Luhrmann.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dazzling and lively fictionalized musical/romantic/comedy about the notorious Moulin Rouge, which is set during the period between 1899 (the summer of love) and 1900. It’s a fluffy romantic story about doomed lovers, a courtesan and a penniless writer who are living the bohemian lifestyle. The story line is about a play they put on that needs the support of a rich nobleman who has a black heart and an evil eye for the courtesan. The musical numbers are splashy, hijacked from other musicals, and gaudily presented, befitting such a story set in a notorious Parisian tourist-trap like the Moulin Rouge nightclub (it was filmed in Australia). The energy and vitality of these musical scores and of viewing a host of bizarrely dressed supporting performers who fill the stage with song and dance, gives this film a comical circus flavoring which manages to cover-up its cliché-ridden story as much as possible.

It’s directed with an eye for color, especially the color of rouge, by the pop-musical enthusiast, the Australian, Baz Luhrmann (“Romeo and Juliet“/”Strictly Ballroom“), an MTV type of director, who is more interested at getting at what dazzles than the why of the dazzle. The film is a series of perpetual motion shots, never pausing to delve into any character study. The problem with that, is you don’t really care what happens to the lovers. The spectacle of the film is the only substance offered, and it’s made sumptuously beautiful for the eye to feast on. It sells its sex in the same way a snake-oil salesman hawks his product, which results in a tirade for the bohemian motto of truth, beauty, freedom, and love; but, it only succeeds in making the sex presented onscreen not to live up to expectations.

What excuses this film from being such a rip-off of other films, is that what is stolen from other films works very well here. It gives the film all the breathless moments found in other films a chance to breath again in this whirlwind of a production that is in a constant climax mode. If all it took was energy and beautiful sets and costumes, then this production would be a glorious one; but, what this film didn’t have was a love story that could touch the heart, even as it screamed out that it was all about heart. This is an easy movie to praise for being inventive and diverting, but it cannot be admired for being a film that has a semblance of truth about it. It’s just another enjoyable but forgettable Hollywood musical, in a long chorus line of such ventures. The film has the feel in all its excesses of a Ken Russell type of musical crossed with any number of Hollywood ones, even such an illustrious traditional one as “Singing in the Rain.”

The story is told through the eyes of an English writer (he acts as the narrator), whose reason for being is to love someone and have that love returned. Ewan McGregor stars as the aspiring writer named Christian. He is the young innocent who leaves behind his uptight father during the French belle époque of the 1890s to live the bohemian life as a writer in Montmartre, Paris. Pecking away at his typewriter, Christian is startled when a costumed Argentinean actor falls through the ceiling of his garret and a dwarf with a lisp, the artist who is now a performing artist, Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), greets him at the door. They have been rehearsing a stage production called “Spectacular Spectacular,” and they quickly realize how talented Christian is and he is hired on the spot to be the play’s new writer. He will also be introduced to the fast track lifestyle of the bohemians in matters of drink and love.

But there are obstacles in the way of putting on the play in the Moulin Rouge, which must be met with by trickery by Lautrec (he’s the acting groups’ leader). He first inveigles a very private meeting with the would-be star of the show, the courtesan and headline performer at the Moulin Rouge, the leggy and sexy Satine (Kidman), and at this meeting she thinks he’s the duke. When she discovers he’s not, it’s too late, she has already fallen in love with him. This changes her hardened personality to one of an innocent girl who sweetly falls in love, a scenario which the film couldn’t convincingly pull off. She will also have a secret she keeps from Christian, that she’s dying from consumption. The wealthy duke is the heavy in this film. He is played by Richard Roxburgh, who plays the one-dimensional role as tritely as it is written. He’s got the dough to make the show happen so the impresario of the dance hall, the colorful liar with the tough exterior but soft heart, Harold Zidler (Broadbent), entices the duke by setting up a private liaison with him and Satine — who is also known as “the Sparkling Diamond.” When all the confusion clears, the result is that the play is sponsored by the duke with the understanding he gets to sleep with Satine.

The film’s gimmick is having 20th century musical songs and routines that are eye popping fill this 19th century set musical. They range from songs such as: “The Sound of Music,” “Your Song,” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Material Girl,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Like a Virgin,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Silly Love Songs,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Up Where We Belong,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Heroes,” “In the Name of Love,” and “Roxanne.” This is just a partial list of songs, as the stage is always tuned for some song and dance action.

All the main characters played are the usual stock archetypes–Nicole Kidman was eye catching as the nightclub star and courtesan who is really a sweetie for a whore, but she was too physically big to be handled in a believable way by Ewan McGregor. He’s the sensitive writer type with the pure heart, who falls in love with a woman who makes him pine for her (at least he stays in character for the entire film). I was amused by John Leguizamo as the rascal-like Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jim Broadbent was overpowering in his role as ringmaster of this operation. He seems to be much too stagy a thespian for these more Hollywood type of actors he’s surrounded by, as he stood out from them because either he was a much better actor than they were or because he hammed it up too much. In any case, his performance did stick out like someone who is thumbing a ride back to Topsy-Turvy. Yet I felt myself partial to Broadbent’s performance, as in every scene he was in I couldn’t help being overwhelmed by his strong presence; though, Kidman’s performance was the key one of the film. She shows us a lot of leg and feeling for who she was; but, the love story had no sparks and just didn’t work right.

It’s a film that looked good (lots of garish colors and stardust), sounded fine, but only felt so-so. A great escape film in the tradition of Hollywood spectacles, a film that does justice to the cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge. It’s a fun film to let one’s hair down, to sit leisurely back with some popcorn and watch this film speed across the big screen. It’s also fun peeking in on the jewel-encrusted elephant that goes for Satine’s boudoir, or checking in on McGregor’s impoverished artist’s digs as he slaves over the typewriter with an outside neon sign shining throughout the night (highlighting the cliché image of a struggling artist).