Moulin Rouge!


         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
  "glorious mess."

         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,
  courtesan dies.

          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
  period clothes.

          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.