Moulin Rouge!, the 2001 move by Australian director Baz Luhrmann, is a lush, romantic musical about a penniless writer who finds true love with a courtesan during the Bohemian revolution.
A sensory-overloaded, mind-boggling ode to the timeless allure of visual exasperation and the universal banality and personal rapture found in the lyrics of the pop song, Moulin Rouge! is being shown during the Ewan McGregor tribute held for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. Also screening will be Beginners, the new Mike Mills film he stars in, about a son whose 75 year old father confesses that he’s gay and takes on a bold new lifestyle; The Pillow Book, the truly awesome artistic achievement about literary translation and romantic jealousy from film genius Peter Greenaway, released in 1996 and still exquisite to behold; and Perfect Sense, a recent UK romantic thriller McGregor starred in, which reunites him with actor Ewen Bremner (they were both in Trainspotting) and looks to be promising.
Moulin Rouge! is an almost abusive use of color, sound, and whacked out acting; it was released at the turn of the last century, in a time when Broadway shows like Chicago were being adapted for the screen, and an apocalyptic sense of everything-what-the-hell-the-kitchen-sink-too use of special effects over-the-glints-of foam-at-the-very-top imagery, somehow both connects it to the counter-culture madness of Paris when it is first set (1899) and makes it the final loud burp of stoned 90s boom years in America cinema. I don’t remember the responses of music critics when they heard the (kind of ahead of its Girl Talk time, really) entwining of Nirvana (“Here we are now!” Entertain us!”) with Whitney Houston (“And I will always love you!”); I think the hi-tech spectacle of certain “alternative” MTV-constant music videos at the end of the previous decade had fried any sense of outright umbrage. But it’s weird, and it’s kind of cool that really dumb pop lyrics are thrown in with decent ones, stacking meaning with mundanity just like any properly raspberry-blowing mix tape.
Among the music, both great and overplayed, include Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” (of course, though the vocal reconstruction here is subtle and interesting), the Pink/Li’l Kim/etc. cover version of Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” (which really rocks the scene it’s in), The Police’s “Roxanne” done tango (appropriately), and a little too much reference to Elton John’s “Your Song” as a binding chorus. There are so many tracks “sampled” here throughout, it makes you wonder if they made any money on the film after paying out for licensing fees.
McGregor plays Christian, checking out the scene in the Montmarte district just before 1900 hits, the grim prophecies of his father’s religion yanking him by the scruff on the back of his neck as he becomes immediately immersed in the world of Toulouse-Lautrec (John Lequizarmo), and other sitar-playing, artistically athletic comrades celebrating the new aesthetics (for the sake of aesthetics). They are in a ramshackle tenement working on a show called “Spectacular Spectacular” for the venue Moulin Rouge, helmed by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent, whose comedic power and grace gives both relief and holds this glittering juggernaut together). At the center of it all is Satine, played by Nicole Kidman, who combines the dark glamor of a featured burlesque showgirl with the cute danger of a late 90s goth rocker. She is perfectly cast, and wonderful to watch, as McGregor courts her singing lines that wouldn’t be written for decades. Bringing up all kinds of questions about the power of love (over and over again) but moreso how long pop song cliches have been floating around in the underground before they burble into the Top 40 (maybe that’s just me asking that). The action flows around a story involving a Duke in love with Kidman’s hypnotic, literally fatally beautiful character — and that’s when things get too predictable in the plotline. Everyone gives it their all though, and Kidman even busted up ribs during the filming of the lavish, ambitious, acrobatic dance scenes.
Australian director Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann used Moulin Rouge! to end his Red Curtain Trilogy, which included the modern and rockified Romeo + Juliet, and started with the indie hit Strictly Ballroom. I think it’s too long to sustain its plot, but certain scenes — like when Kidman’s presence is foreshadowed by an intoxicating Green Fairy representing the hit beverage of the day, absinthe; when McGregor first start flirting on a building top, trading off lyrics; or when Broadbent heads a hysterically funny all-male cast performance of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” which arguably beats out Tarantino’s conversational deconstruction at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs. The ending of the film is more gorgeous-slopped-on-ornate-majestic than seems possible, but the energy sort of peaked when the middle-aged, corpulent Broadbent was sashaying around for the Duke, enticing him to stay in his investment for the venue. That’s the one scene I remembered after seeing this in 2001, and it’s still my favorite.
If you’re going to see Moulin Rouge!, I definitely recommend seeing it on the big screen as part of the festival, and now that absinthe is legal in the United States, a couple large glasses of that before you settle into your theater seats will make this a dazzle to behold.