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A Love Supreme

Moulin Rouge Is Pure Pop for Now People

Lord of the Dance: Satine (Nicole Kidman) gets her due in one of Moulin Rouge's eye-popping production numbers.

Urge Overkill: Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Satine profess their love in grand style.

By Ian Grey | Posted

Baz Luhrmann is not content with simply reviving the musical for modern audiences who might find Singin' in the Rain stodgy. No, it's also his goal to co-op the Technicolor amour fou of Hollywood's most febrile musicals of the 1950s, the Busby Berkeley-esque human tableaus of Indian "Bollywood" extravaganzas, the Orpheus legend, and what seems like the entire friggin' songbook of the 20th century into one high-velocity image-poem of mad operatic love. Incredibly, the director of the oft-annoying MTV-ized William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet pulls it off.

That said, Moulin Rouge is a bit of a mess at first. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce initially present their tale at three speeds--fast, faster, and really, really fast. The camera dizzily spins through production designer Catherine Martin's 1899 Paris, a hyper-real 3-D diorama of gemstone- and bric-a-brac-laden design. We zip into the garret of scruffy poet Christian (Ewan McGregor, oozing both boyish charm and gothic angst), victim of true love found and ultimately lost behind the gilded doors of the Moulin Rouge, famed theater palace of debaucheries unimagined. Packing the Rouge are Christian's comically unglued boho compatriots--Rouge impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent), absinthe addict/artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), a gypsy-king singer named the Unconscious Argentinean (Jacek Koman)--who passionately natter about Art in a patois of truncated sentences and pop-song lyric fragments. Ten minutes into Moulin Rouge, the soundtrack has already quoted (among many other tunes) T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution," Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade," and the theme from the film Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. Luhrmann convulsively crosscuts to a glam-rockish chorus line --"they call them the Diamond Dogs"--high-heeling their way through a cancan, the backing track a rollicking house version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." One could, at this juncture, be excused for thinking we're in for some sort of postmodern music-geek wallow.

But then gorgeous courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) descends from the ceiling on a glittering swing cooing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" while dressed like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, and Rouge finds a tempo that folks not hooked on amphetamines will be able to handle. At this point, you'll either want to strangle the film or make mad, passionate love to it--metaphorically speaking.

After her number, Satine retires to her jewel-encrusted, elephant-shaped apartment, where she and Christian accidentally meet. They're immediately, insanely smitten, with Christian driving Satine to floor-crawling orgasm by reciting his latest epic poem--actually the lyrics of Elton John's beyond-sappy perennial "Your Song." As Christian breaks into the song proper, the lovers ascend to and dance among the billowing night clouds. The Moon (Placido Domingo!) chimes in a few bars; a glowing chartreuse pixie (Kylie Minogue!) dapples them with stardust. However one reacts to this spectacle--slack jaws were plentiful at the screening I attended--Luhrmann's incessant, too-much-is-never-enough invention is simply astonishing.

Alas, Satine and Christian must hide their love from the imperious Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who wants to bed Satine in exchange for bankrolling a mega-musical written by Christian (to be titled Spectacular Spectacular!). Christian becomes crazy jealous of the Duke, the Duke is so jealous of Christian that he's threatening to ruin the show, and worse, Satine's bad case of consumption grows more serious. Everything builds to monumental acts of betrayal, selflessness, attempted murder, and redemption. Still, the show must go on, and does; the cast proceeds to sing--of course--the Queen anthem of the same name.

Beyond his velvety visuals, Luhrmann powers his film with one sneaky conceit: Even the tritest of pop tunes gain an emotional heft because of our personal associations with them. When not shamelessly exploiting this, he's busy exploiting our reactions to sad, hilarious, or just plain weird juxtapositions regarding who sings what, and why, while simultaneously inviting us to share in the goofy glory of his manipulations. But mostly, he wants us to wallow in a well-earned weep. If you can watch Satine and Christian trying to keep love alive by singing David Bowie's "Heroes" against the starry Paris night sky without a sniffle, you're made of sterner stuff than this reviewer.

Moulin Rouge is quite possibly the first film that truly exploits the possibilities of computer-generated imagery (CGI), as opposed to the other way around. Knowing that the more "perfect" a digital image, the less interesting or "realistic" its effect, Luhrmann digitally grunges up his crew's exquisite computer graphics, matte paintings, and models to create an utterly believable world of glorious artifice, appropriate in a film celebrating the same. His effects always enhance the inner passions of his extraordinary cast, as opposed to the usual Hollywood practice of using actors as human-shaped place marks between CGI money shots.

McGregor, after enduring a strange sort of celebrity--everyone knows him, but no single film has defined him as a performer--emerges as nothing less than his generation's most physically acute, emotionally generous actor, and a pretty super singer. As for Kidman, the simultaneously kittenish/fully adult sexuality she hinted at in Eyes Wide Shut explodes under Luhrmann's direction. Even the limitations of her singing voice--a sometimes tremulous high alto--add humanity to what could have been an archly camp or simply ridiculous siren. Kidman's energy level is stunning, her commitment to the director's wack vision complete. It's a vision that reveals Luhrmann to be a collage artist of the first order, blending together the gauche disposables of the last century into a rapturous, sensuous feast like nothing you've even remotely seen before. Unlike other big summer productions, Moulin Rouge is a film you'll want to see--no, make that have to see--again. Because love's like that.

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