Moulin Rouge

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge.
(© 2001 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

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As visually rich as any movie ever made, Moulin Rouge overhelms its viewers with a dazzling barrage of sumptuous imagery. The camera spins and soars; like a bird it dives into the streets of Paris, sliding past the gaping mouth of Montmartre (a haven of bohemia), magnetically drawn to the Moulin Rouge, where dancers merge with the audience in a hedonistic orgy that is simultaneously opulent, gawdy, and decadent.

A beautiful singer named Satine (Nicole Kidman) descends from the high ceiling on a trapeze swing. As the audience below looks up in awe with arms outstretched, she launches into beautiful ballads and raunchy bump-and-grind numbers. Within this hothouse environment, director Baz Luhrmann takes us on an amazing journey filled with longing gazes and passionate embraces. Luhrmann's previous films have also exhibited a love for rich imagery (as in William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and, to a lesser extent, his debut effort, Strictly Ballroom), but with Moulin Rouge he pushes even further yet--to a point where imagery becomes justification alone for the movie's existence. While Moulin Rouge does contain a rudimentary story, the plot mainly serves as a skeletal structure upon which to mount a visual assault. Likewise, the movie also has a selection of outrageous characters, but they're mainly on hand to serve as catalysts for igniting Luhrmann's visual pyrotechnics.

Nicole Kidman plays the aforementioned Satine, the star attraction of the Moulin Rouge. Before she hits the stage, the Moulin Rouge is filled with a cacophony of sounds, but suddenly, as the spotlight finds her, the noise drops to little more than a whisper. Ewan McGregor plays a young playwright named Christian. He has been drawn to the Montmartre district for the "bohemian revolution" then taking place (circa 1899), but once he witnesses the charms of Satine, he's just like any other healthy heterosexual male: he's consumed with desire. But getting close to Satine is unheard of--unless you're rich, that is. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity, Satine comes to believe that Christian is indeed a wealthy financier. So for a few minutes, she submits and in fact encourages his advances--just long enough to realize that Christian is different and just long enough to realize how dissatisfied she is with the life that she leads.

Satine is also ill. Consumption is gradually sapping her strength. And this helps instill within her a sense of urgency--a need to make a connection on a meaningful level with another human being. But meanwhile, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh, whose last stint was opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II) tries to claim her. He says, "I just don't like other people touching my things." He agrees to finance a musical extravaganza at the Moulin Rouge--under the condition that Satine agrees to make herself available solely to him.

Moulin Rouge contains several moments that will absolutely take your breath away, moments of inspired grandeur and energy. But the movie also contains an equal amount of scenes that are difficult to watch. The storytelling is cumbersome--a calliope of clanging sounds and flashing lights. Eventually, the onslaught of visuals becomes less dazzling than simply overwhelming and irritating. The imagery--red cushions, yellow tassels, gold latticework, plush curtains--totally overpowers the characters and continuously reinforces their irrelevance.

Even the choice of music reinforces the irrelevance of everything except the imagery: we're treated to a bevy of retreaded pop songs--with Elton John's "Your Song," David Bowie's "Heroes," and Madonna's "Like a Virgin" playing important roles. So instead of the lyrics speaking for the actors, the lyrics do little more than mark time. On occasion, director Luhrmann manages to whip this ludicrous mix into a sublime soufflé of imagery and sounds. But the velocity of the editing resembles a movie trailer: Moulin Rouge is all quick cuts and bursts of action.

Luhrmann never finds a rhythm other than the blistering fast pace of trailers and music videos. This is fine for a five minute short, but by trying to sustain this pace for an entire movie--of nearly two hours duration--the effect is mind numbing. Because Luhrmann treats every scene as if it's a climax, the movie fails to gather momentum. It lurches rather awkwardly when it means to soar.

Moulin Rouge is like Busby Berkeley on speed. It's too frantic. It's too claustrophobic. It's too smug and self-satisfied. Yet even while Moulin Rouge frequently descends into burdensome heaps of camera shots and machine-gun-paced editing, the movie remains a technical marvel. When the 2002 Academy Award nominations are announced, you should fully expect to see Moulin Rouge receive nods for art direction and cinematography. But Luhrmann isn't particularly interested in storytelling. He's enamored with the technology of filmmaking, but his characters are little more than mannequins. And that makes this movie a stunning but empty exercise in style.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Twentieth Century Fox
Movie Web site: Moulin Rouge



Photos: © Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.