FILM REVIEW: MOULIN ROUGE

By Michael Wilmington

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

4 stars

Grandiose and whimsical, packed with oddball delights and bursts of passion, Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" is a rare picture that gets you intoxicated on the possibilities of movies.

Luhrmann is a filmmaker of near-demonic energy and invention. He transforms the film's chestnut of a story a sensitive and penniless writer (Ewan McGregor) battles for the body and soul of a dazzling courtesan-entertainer (Nicole Kidman) into something mad and wonderful. "Moulin Rouge" is a landmark musical movie controversial, mercurial, even cheeky. It's the kind of film that wildly divides audiences and critics people tend to either love or hate it. I loved it.

Supposedly set in Montmartre in 1899, in the legendary Parisian nightclub the Moulin Rouge, where top-hatted dandies ogle can-can girls, Toulouse-Lautrec paints their colorful revels and the jovial impresario Alfred Zigler (Jim Broadbent) peddles the charms of star Satine (Kidman) to a mesmerized public the film really takes place in the movie never-never lands of our collective memory. Drawing on icons and images spanning the past century, from Georges Melies to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna and MTV, Luhrmann and company condense them into a dense, gorgeous dreamscape: a completely fabricated and theatrical world where anything can happen. His "Moulin Rouge" is an almost ecstatically crazy and daring show, a heart-on-sleeve musical tragicomedy done with relentless artifice and jaw-dropping bravado.

Like Orson Welles, Luhrmann ("Strictly Ballroom," "Romeo + Juliet") loves the technical magic of movies. He starts with a shot of the red curtain from the beginning of "Strictly Ballroom," and when it opens, we are transported into his make-believe world. Zooming through a sensational sepia digitized re-creation of Montmartre's wicked 19th-century streets, he glides up to the garret of his artist-hero, Christian (McGregor). This opening is a warning not to take the movie (or Christian) too seriously or to worry about the many anachronisms. It's all pure theater, a movie dream.

On its simplest level though it's never really simple this is an old-fashioned backstage musical, like "42nd Street." It's about the creation of an elaborate musical extravaganza by the Moulin Rouge troupe, led by Zigler, who has promised Satine to an insanely jealous aristocrat, the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) in return for his bankrolling the show. Writer Christian falls in with them by accident when he arrives in Montmartre, a naïve young idealist pulled into the Bohemian world by neighbor Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his group, which includes composer Erik Satie (Matthew Whittet) and a ferocious tango dancer called The Unconscious Argentinean (Jacek Koman). Through them, Christian is hired to write the show: an Indian fantasia whose romantic triangle echoes the amours between Christian, Satine and the Duke.

The Bohemians believe in "truth, beauty, freedom and love." The Duke believes in sex, rank and the power of money. Zigler believes the show must go on. And Christian and Satine, the ideal movie romantic couple, believe in each other and in the power of love. "Come what may," they both sing lustily in one of the score's few original songs (by David Baerwald), "I will love you till my dying day," and the movie lets us take that sentiment without irony. Indeed, one of the things I loved most about "Moulin Rouge" was its ability to swing easily among so many wildly different moods, to glide effortlessly between farce, tragedy, romance, satire, comedy and rock 'n' roll.

The movie's gargantuan Moulin Rouge set becomes the disco of our dreams, a time-warp dance club. When we first see Satine, she's swaying high above the adoring Moulin Rouge throngs in a huge, flowered swing, belting out "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Monroe's showstopper from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953).

Satine is drawn as the ultimate sex goddess, and it's a tribute to Kidman's rare talent and beauty that she can pull this off. We can believe she's the icon who sets Parisian society hearts aflame and the tender sweetheart who falls for Christian and also that she's another Camille, coughing up blood. McGregor is a fine shining-eyed poet-hero, Roxburgh a stunningly ridiculous villain, Broadbent a wonderfully comic-Mephistophelean ringmaster, and Leguizamo a strangely vulnerable and sweet Toulouse. But it's Kidman who gives "Moulin Rouge" its central erotic charge, its romantic thrill.

She also sings all her own songs, as do all the other actors. The score is eclectic, with songs by Offenbach, The Beatles, Sting, Elton John, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others and having the actors sing these songs themselves, without dubbing, lends them unusual power and immediacy. And though the main stars aren't great musical performers, there are genuine pop musical stars in "Moulin Rouge." Christina Aguilera and Li'l Kim are in a girl group singing "Lady Marmalade," Bono does "Children of the Revolution," and David Bowie and Massive Attack join on one of the many renditions of Nat King Cole's '50s hit "Nature Boy," this movie's anthem.

Luhrmann's little Australian movie "Strictly Ballroom" (1992) was the best dance musical of the '90s, and here he seems bent on nothing less than the reinvention of the old-fashioned "show" musical comedy: the form that thrived in Hollywood from the talkie era through the '60s and seemed to expire soon after Bob Fosse's 1972 "Cabaret." For me, he succeeds.

"Moulin Rouge" is a movie for people who love the old musical movies, but it also has lots of high-tech razzle-dazzle for the MTV generation. Though the sets and costumes are incredibly lush and stylized, the film is shot and cut in the jarringly fast rhythms of a modern rock video. Yet Luhrmann uses that style with wit. His tremendous energy is never vacuous; the movie always teems with life and ideas.

It's both hip and corny, old-fashioned and post-post-modern: a dizzying pop collage where almost everything is purposely pitched too high, too fast, too feverishly intense.

But, the gaudy excesses all work. By the climax, the film comes together and soars. "Truth, beauty, freedom and love" is the credo of Lautrec's Bohemians, who race through the movie like the Marx Brothers on a tear, but it's also Luhrmann's credo. He's able to find his lovers slightly ridiculous as when, perched on top of Satine's elephant-shaped hideaway, they burst into a fervent, crazy pop medley of hit songs about love (from "Up Where We Belong" to "Don't Leave Me This Way") but he's also able to cheer for them, weep with them.

I haven't enjoyed a show musical this much since "Cabaret." Love it or hate it, "Moulin Rouge" is a movie you won't forget, a song that won't get out of your head.

"Moulin Rouge"

Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Luhrmann, Craig Pearce; photographed by Donald M. McAlpine; edited by Bill Bilcock; production designed by Catherine Martin; music by Craig Armstrong; produced by Martin Brown, Luhrmann, Fred Baron. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, June 1. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content).

Satine Nicole Kidman

Christian Ewan McGregor

Toulouse-Lautrec John Leguizamo

Zidler Jim Broadbent

Duke of Worcester Richard Roxburgh

The Unconscious Argentinean Jacek Koman



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