Before he became a movie director, Baz Luhrmann had careers as both an actor and
a stage director. In fact, he garnered the most attention for his staging of Puccini's
LA BOHÈME. Luhrmann segued to films as director of STRICTLY BALLROOM (based
on his stage show which took a hoary plot and dressed it up for early 1990s audiences), he
really broke though with the American mass audience with a contemporary spin on the classic
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO + JULIET that employed great visuals and an
attractive cast but which made hay out of the Bard's play. Now in a bid to further stretch
an artist, the writer-director (in tandem with frequent screenwriting colleague Craig Pearce)
has dusted off LA BOHÈME, added contemporary tunes, an overblown production design
(by Mrs. Luhrmann, Catherine Martin), and jump-cut editing that would make an MTV video
director envious. The result is MOULIN ROUGE! which in this translation means
The movie musical has been moribund for decades in spite of the occasional attempts
by big studios to revive it. Arguably Disney picked up the slack in its halcyon days when
Jeffrey Katzenberg ruled the Mouse House and animated features like THE LION KING,
THE LITTLE MERMAID, and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST enchanted and delighted
audiences. Luhrmann, in a fit of hubris, has attempted to breathe new life into the genre
with MOULIN ROUGE! Indeed the film opens in a charming and engaging manner:
a red curtain appears, slowly opens and reveals the 20th Century Fox logo while in
the foreground a conductor appears and signals an unseen orchestra to play the studio's
famous fanfare. Immediately, the audience knows it will be in for something special. Even
the opening prologue set in 1900 Paris is a visual treat with its constantly moving camera
and washed out tones. Soon the audience sees and hears the narrator Christian (Ewen
McGregor) who recounts the tale of events that unfolded a year earlier when he arrived
in the City of Lights from London as a youth filled with ideals.
The story then veers into the absurd when a man comes crashing through his ceiling
followed by a dwarf in a nun's habit. It turns out the latter is Toulouse-Lautrec (John
Leguizamo) who in this fictional world only shares his short stature with the famous painter.
He and his bohemian cohorts soon inveigle Christian into writing their new play to be called
"Spectacular Spectacular" and off they go to the local nightspot, the Moulin Rouge. There
Christian immediately falls for the head courtesan and lead performer Satine (Nicole Kidman).
She initially mistakes him for The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), a wealthy patron who wants
to purchase Satine's charms in return for financing the latest production of Harold Zidler
(Jim Broadbent), the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge. With these broad characters (defined
very broadly and in very cliché terms), Luhrmann and Pearce follow the contours of
LA BOHÈME: Boy meets courtesan, boy falls in love, courtesan rejects him to save his life,
In order to paper over the very thin and well-worn plot, Luhrmann (assisted by designer
Martin) piles on layer upon layer of pizazz and razzmatazz. The camera almost never stops
moving and there doesn't seem to be a shot that lasts for more than 30 seconds without an
edit. The frenzied pace creates an assault on the eyes that is matched aurally with the songs
and snippets of songs that are on the soundtrack. (All the actors have done their own vocals
and both Kidman and McGregor prove effective if not spectacular.) Here is where Luhrmann
attempts to be avant-garde by incorporating contemporary rock and pop songs. Hence, when
poet Christian begins to profess his love to Satine, he quotes Bernie Taupin's lyrics for the
Elton John number "Your Song." (The audience with which I viewed the film roared with
laughter at this.) Luhrmann is nothing if not gutsy in his attempt to marry the sensibilities
of composers and lyricists as diverse as Lennon & McCartney, Rodgers & Hammerstein,
Kurt Cobain, Phil Collins and Sting (to name but a few). I didn't really have a problem with
the use of these anachronistic numbers, the difficulties I had were with the production values.
If anything, the film suffers from excess: too much music, camerawork that's too busy,
production numbers that are over the top. In fact, many of the fine actors employed in the
film are overshadowed by the garish design.
The two leads are attractive performers and both possess pleasant if unpolished voices.
McGregor is that rare actor who can pull off playing a relatively callow, virginal youth. He
makes the character of Christian into an interesting and full-bodied one despite the script's
shortcomings. Kidman is the surprise, having spent much of her career playing ice princesses,
she gets to cuts loose (sometimes a bit too much as in one double entendre-filled scene)
and appears to be enjoying herself. But even she cannot make the subplot of her illness
completely believable. One minute Satine is belting out a number, the next, she's passing
out and/or delicately but discreetly coughing up blood. Like the movie queens of old (i.e.,
Garbo in CAMILLE), though, she does so looking gorgeous and fabulous in the stylish
The supporting players, however, fare less well. Broadbent is saddled with playing a
larger-than-life figure and he has opted to overdo it. There are the occasional glimpses of
the fine actor he is but most of his work in the film falls into the category of "mugging."
Leguizamo is badly miscast as a lisping Toulouse-Lautrec and by invoking the artist's name
but stripping him of his painterly abilities borders on criminal. (I know, one cannot libel the
dead, which is a good thing for the writers.) Roxburgh, normally a fine and nuanced player,
is here reduced to portraying a melodramatic villain; he does everything to telegraph his evil
side short of twirling his mustache. Luhrmann should also be fined for wasting the talents
of a terrific actor like David Wenham (who thankfully is barely recognizable) or the strong
musical abilities of homegrown Australians like Caroline O'Connor and Natalie Mendoza.
Clearly there was a lot of talent behind MOULIN ROUGE!, but the final result is
a mishmash of style that obliterates what little substance the story had. It's as if Luhrmann
recognized the banality of the plot and did everything in his power to visually distract the
audience from that weakness. (He clearly believes in the Oscar Wilde dictum that "Nothing
succeeds like excess.") Unfortunately, the flaws shine through. MOULIN ROUGE! has
to be classified as a noble exercise that falls short of its aspirations.
Rating: B -
MPAA Rating: PG-13
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.