Any illusions of cinematic normalcy fostered by Fox's straight-laced advertising campaign for Moulin Rouge! are shattered the very second the film begins. The camera pushes in on the curtain of a theatre as an orchestra conductor comes into frame. The curtains part to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo, and the conductor dramatically waves his arms to the familiar bombastic melody of the Fox fanfare. Welcome to the wild world of director Baz Luhrmann.
For those who know nothing about the film outside of the publicity campaign, such a device may be really shocking, but anyone who knows anything more will only be taken mildly aback; after all, Moulin Rouge! is a musical. Not the type of dance musical that's come in fashion in recent years, nor a film about musicians that hence has a lot of music--it is a musical in the classic, theatrical "burst into song" tradition. But that's about the only thing traditional about Luhrmann's bold, unique, and ultimately unforgettable feast for the senses.
Some heavy turbulence, however, must be weathered before the film truly takes shape. After that literal curtain raiser and some somber narration by Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer in 1900 Paris whose flashbacks to the year before make the meat of the film, Luhrmann launches into his hyperactive Romeo + Juliet style of quick cutting, wildly mobile camera work aided by flashy digital effects. But without the built-in story familiarity that came with R+J, the effect is even more chaotic and therefore irritating. As talented young English poet Christian arrives in Paris and falls into the company of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his group of absinthe-drinking Bohemians, everything is upped to a strained pitch: the frenetic editing and camera movements, the hammy performances, the labored physical and verbal gags, the indulgent surrealism. When a green fairy (Australian pop diva Kylie Minogue) appears on screen to warble "the hills are alive with the sound of music," it's hard to not react with mouth agape shock--and not in a good way.
Hard as it is to imagine, Luhrmann cranks the style to an even higher level when Christian makes his first visit to the Moulin Rouge, that infamous nightclub known for its can-can dancers. It's understandable that Luhrmann would want to use all his tricks to convey the anarchic abandon of the club and all that takes place there. But the excess in not just the visuals but also the use of music (bits and pieces of familiar pop songs are performed one after another and sometimes on top of each other; for instance, women sing the familiar "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" of LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" as men bark out the chorus to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit") pushes one dangerously close to a need for Excedrin. The relentless razzle dazzle obscures pertinent plot information, such as the introduction of the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), a wealthy man whom Moulin Rouge ringleader Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is angling to finance the club's upcoming entertainment extravaganza, the aptly titled Spectacular Spectacular. Key to securing the funding are the seductive charms of Moulin Rouge's crown jewel and the most famous courtesan in Paris, Satine (Nicole Kidman), a.k.a. "the Sparkling Diamond."
Something does come across clearly in this sequence, and that is Christian's immediate attraction to Satine, and with their subsequent meeting in the sultry star's boudoir, Luhrmann finally settles down and begins to find his footing. Pressured to come up with a poem to recite, Christian suddenly bursts out into Elton John's "Your Song," setting the stage for one of the more transporting romantic moments I've seen on screen in a long time; so effective is the number--and so startling is McGregor's fabulous singing voice--that one never questions Satine's sudden reciprocal feelings for Christian. One is barely given a chance to
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