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Moulin Rouge! (2001).

July 29, 2008

The Scoop:
Just look at those happy, cloying faces. So full of happiness and song, so eager to keep you entertained…

Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant, self-aggrandizing, over-the-top redefinition of the movie musical is a stunning, landmark achievement despite its narrative shortcomings. Despite having an overlong running time and getting mired down in its tedious, melodramatic love story in its latter half, “Moulin Rouge!” (yes, the exclamation point is an essential part of the title) works best as a summation and celebration of all the popular music and culture of the last century. Set at the turn of the 20th century and using all the flash, glamour and storytelling magic of the turn of the 21st century, the narrative is propelled by a fascinating potpourri of music, in which hard rock, showtunes, jazz and opera are blended together seamlessly. It is as if Busby Berkeley, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Nirvana all came together in a gloriously campy fever dream. (In fact, the soundtrack features vocal contributions from both Placido Domingo and Ozzy Osbourne.)

The story, such as it is, concerns the growing love triangle between sensitive poet Christian (Ewan MacGregor), cabaret performer Satine (Nicole Kidman) and the diabolic Duke (Richard Roxburgh). It takes place in and around the titular nightclub, the turn of the century Paris hotspot popularized by the art of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (played here by John Leguizamo on his knees). The cast, not to mention the seemingly endless parade of extras, all are in fine voice and give fun, high-energy performances, but it is Jim Broadbent who tops them all as Harold Zidler, the ringmaster of the club’s exuberant extravagance.

The film’s billing as “a sensual ravishment” is an apt description — especially in the sense that “ravishment” is a polite euphemism for “rape.” Luhrmann fully crystalizes the vision he had shown earlier glimpses of in “Swing Kids” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” by assaulting the viewers with a kaleidescope of color, sound, editing and exuberance that is truly breathtaking. When it works, as in the first half of the film, particularly during Christian and friends’ first visit to the nightclub, it is a knockout, a stunning work of genius. But as the paper-thin story begins to stray from that light-heartedness and into the turgid dramatics of the play-within-the-movie and the love triangle, the approach becomes both sappy and overbearing.

In spite of its problems, though, “Moulin Rouge!” remains a must-see film. Not only is it entertaining, but it also revived the art of the movie musical and its visual style has influenced the “baroque cabaret” styles of fashion and pop music that have persisted throughout the decade.

Best Bit:
It’s a toss-up between Broadbent singing “Like a Virgin” and Kylie Minogue popping up as the green absinthe fairy.

Side Note:
During the shoot, Nicole Kidman broke two ribs and twisted a knee in one of the dance sequences. In many of the shots that wound up in the finished film, she performed in a wheelchair.

Companion Viewing:
“Moulin Rouge” (1952), “42nd Street” (1933), “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “American Pop” (1981) and any number of Panic at the Disco music videos.

Hollywood Teen Movies.
LazyDork’s “Moulin Rouge” Drinking Game.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

The “Roxanne” tango:

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