Director: Baz Luhrmann
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Kylie Minogue, Christine Anu
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content)
Running Time: 2:06
Release Date: 6/1/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Why has the movie musical gone into hibernation? I have always thought the idea of people breaking into song in the middle of a conversation was a little odd and far-fetched. I appreciate the good musicals of the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, but honestly, both venues have suffered from sell-out syndrome, a lack of inspiration, and, in the former’s case, just plain absence from view over the past few decades. So, in all honesty, Moulin Rouge is not the kind of film I would typically enjoy.
Yet, for some reason, the film dug under my skin and genuinely touched me. This is a work that will be disputed over for years to come. Some will find the break-neck pacing of the first thirty minutes annoying; some will find the love story to be complete cheese; some will think the anachronistic music doesn’t work. On the other side, there will be those who say it works and gives us a wonderful vision of two artistic venues, theatre and film, combined with joyful and invigorating dedication and style. You can place me with the latter.
For the past few years now, some films have revitalized melodrama, where the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, damsels are in distress, and emotions are high. Some of the most recent and successful examples I can recall are Legends of the Fall, Leaving Las Vegas, and Magnolia. These films have also come under scrutiny, particularly Magnolia, which is the purest example of melodrama from that list. Moulin Rouge, like most musicals, draws its plot from the world of melodrama also. In turn of the century (1899-1900) Paris, a young and idealistic writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) has arrived in the city to begin his career writing about the Bohemian ideals of "beauty, freedom, truth, and, above all things, love," even though he has never fallen in love. He receives an unexpected call from a group of actors upstairs and is asked to fill in for one of them for a moment. The troupe is having difficulty with one of songs they are trying to write for their play. After many different revisions, Christian helps by belting out "The hills are alive / With the sound of music." They are so impressed with his talent, the troupe asks Christian to work with them and get a show produced at the Moulin Rouge, a local and infamous nightclub.
The Moulin Rouge is a spectacle to behold. The club is decorated with lavish art direction and occupied with characters in grand costumes. Here we encounter our first full-fledged musical number. It is a jubilant combination of "Lady Marmalade" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." So as the girls sing of the joys of prostitution, the men are chanting "Here we are now / Entertain us." The Moulin Rouge also contains the rest of the characters we will get to know through the rest of the film. Zidler (Jim Broadbent, Gilbert from Topsy-Turvy) runs the club and wants to turn it into a theater. He can do this with the help of The Duke, devilishly played by Richard Roxburgh, and Zidler thinks one way to convince him is by arranging a private meeting with his best courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). In a case of mistaken identity, Satine thinks Christian is The Duke, and the two end up having the private meeting—Christian wanting a poetry reading, Satine thinking of naughtier intentions. A great rendition of Elton John’s "Your Song" where the two literally dance in the clouds soon follows. The Duke comes for his meeting, and after a can-can style synopsis of the play the troupe intends to perform, The Duke gives the money for the theater.
There are much more melodramatic turns to come. Of course, Christian and Satine fall in love. There is a great scene in which Christian begins to quote lyrics from songs that stress the importance of love, and Satine replies in the same tune but with a more cynical retort. A love triangle is the result, and it is also played out to full melodramatic effect, with the lovers hiding, arranging secret meetings, and writing their own special song. Finally, Satine is ill, and not just with any affliction, but with the benchmark melodramatic condition—consumption.
The musical numbers in the film vary as the tone changes. Director Baz Luhrmann may be criticized for stylistic overkill, but in each of these numbers his style is so strong and so varying, he cannot be blasted for simply making a two hour music video. That kind of critique does not do justice to the majority of the film’s scenes. The opening numbers at the Moulin Rouge are cut with a music video sort of quality that show the pitch and hollowness of the celebration. Later, when the film begins dwelling on emotional numbers, they become far more restrained. A number involving a tango version of "Roxanne" is particularly powerful in showing Christian’s jealousy. The concept of placing an entire century of music into a period setting may seem absurd, but it actually serves a purpose. These are all recognizable songs, so the audience immediately identifies with the mood of a scene and perhaps even its undertones. Furthermore, the pop music selections add to the Bohemian ideals and themes of the film. All popular music is essentially an extension of those dogmas throughout the century. To add to the importance and success of the musical numbers, Luhrmann has filled his cast with actors with great voices. Each of them holds his or her own when their big number arrives.
Not all melodrama works. Many times, it falls flat on its face. Musicals call for this lower level of complexity in storytelling, and when they are successful, they transcend the material. Moulin Rouge is just that kind of success. It is a daring and audacious film that may not only awaken the movie musical, but that will also place itself among the best films of this year.
Copyright © 2001 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.