MOULIN ROUGE A
USA Australia (126 mi) 2001 ‘Scope d: Baz Luhrmann
If ever there were a movie that was created with Blu-ray in mind, this is it, as this is a kaleidoscope fusion of music and color that explodes off the screen, delighting viewers with the scandalous opulence of a tantalizingly seductive musical. This has all the magnificence of Broadway come to the screen, among the most extravagant visual spectacles ever made, yet it’s all underscored by an old-fashioned love story that also gets the small details right, especially the small snippets of lyrics from popular songs that elevate the dizzyingly emotional love scenes. Shot by John McAlpine using the brightest, near hallucinogenic use of colors, the Bollywood style stage presence of beautifully choreographed frenzied excess, luxurious costumes with exaggerated use of makeup and wigs, and a set design like none other that you’ve ever seen, so elaborately detailed and wildly expressive. Set in the bohemian district of Montmarte in Paris in 1900, we zoom into the city with the cutesy style of AMÉLIE (2001), hovering among the rooftops overlooking the Moulin Rouge nightclub where John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec is perched wondering what to present for his next show, but the narration is being described by a man seen inside a window with a typewriter, Ewan McGregor as Christian, a struggling writer who has moved there to be caught up in the spirit of revolution, where all that matters is “truth, beauty, freedom, and most of all, love.” When Christian stumbles upon Toulouse-Lautrec at a rehearsal session where they are conceptually stuck, he brilliantly resolves the writer’s block by singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music…” The tone is set, as immediately he is welcomed into the fraternity of fellow bohemians.
What he discovers is a scandalous burlesque and dance review featuring scantily clad women in neon colored costumes dancing the French Can Can that would rival the Roman Circus for decadence in a show called “Spectacular Spectacular.” Enter Nicole Kidman dressed only in lingerie and a hat lowered on a trapeze bar singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in her most breathy Marilyn Monroe imitation. Satine is the star of the show, the sexiest, most alluring woman known as the “sparkling diamond,” the highest paid courtesan in Paris. To save the show, as the club is going bankrupt, she is urged by the master of ceremony, Jim Broadbent from Mike Leigh’s TOPSY TURVY (1999), to use her feminine charms to get a pompously overdressed rich Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to invest in the show. But she mistakes the poor starving writer for the aristocratic Duke, which leads to a comedy of errors and misdirection. His mind grasping in desperation, knowing he’s about to lose the girl, Christian breaks into song, a quietly affecting rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song.” Like a deer in the headlights, she is struck by the emotional allure of the song, which leads to a spectacular rooftop romance fantasia where they do a tribute to the umbrella sequence from SINGIN IN THE RAIN (1952), only here they dance engulfed in a sea of fog cast in a blue light, which eventually turns animated, dancing under the moon next to the Eiffel Tower in a picture postcard image of Paris. Like magic, one song and they are in love. Once she discovers his real identity, confusion ensues as she then has to meet the real Duke, who she now has no interest in and must steal away all waking hours with her new love while lying and concealing this scandalous affair from the Duke. What follows are more enchanting love songs sung from the rooftop of Satine’s giant elephant shaped bedroom, each using a line from a popular love song to create a surge of emotional fascination with the idea of love, as it is beautifully explored through song lyrics. This technique would later be used in Julie Taymor’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) where the lyrics from Beatles songs actually tell the narrative throughout the entire movie. Luhrmann brilliantly uses this device throughout the film, using a varied selection of lyrics from Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” to Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” to Dolly Parton’s heartfelt “I Will Always Love You,” all to wonderful effect, as he cleverly mixes the mood with the visual enchantment onscreen.
Once we see where this is heading, right out of French literature or opera, as Satine, like Camille or Mimi in La Bohème, is dying of consumption, so what becomes immediately apparent is not only can the Duke not have her, but no one can, as she’s covering up the fact she is near death. But the Duke grows fanatical and deliriously enraged when he realizes he’s been made a fool of and insists upon conditions that force the hand of the actors, using threats of violence as well as his insistence of taking over the theater. Still, making a fool of him is one of the more delicious aspects of the film, filled with humor and cleverness. Without it, the film drags near the end and runs into a more contrived finale that seems to go on forever, with Luhrmann never finding the right ending, so he keeps throwing more at the audience. Kidman is sensually vulnerable throughout, yet also a sexual force, so her strength of character is vital to this film, while McGregor is a wide-eyed idealist where love is literally sweeping him off his feet, where from one moment to the next, song lyrics just keep flying out of his head. The two are positively enchanting together, and with that core of authenticity, all that excessive Bollywood window dressing that’s meant to dazzle the senses with hyper-saturated colors, inventive set designs, and a wonderful neverending energy just leaves the audience overwhelmed yet yearning for more. This is the film NINE (2009) needed to be but wasn’t, falling flat with its own disinterest. Luhrmann’s film on the other hand is constantly reinventing itself, finding astonishing ways to continually find the emotional resonance of a simple love story, seemingly simplistic and overdone, but given an entirely new vision here that continually mixes moods from psychedelic to comedic farce to delirious spectacle to rock “n” roll, an unapologetically artificial dreamworld that holds up over time by remaining outrageously inventive and alluringly spectacular.