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Moulin Rouge   C+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Kylie Minogue, Christine Anu.

Review by Rob Vaux

How much is too much? That's the question Moulin Rouge begs us to answer. Beginning with the precredits studio logo, director Baz Luhrmann launches into his trademark postmodernism with relentless aggression. His subject -- an operatic fable of star-crossed lovers in Paris's infamous turn-of-the-century boudoir -- has enough visual potential to satisfy even his appetites, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. Moulin Rouge is a dizzying whirlwind of cross-cutting, skirt-flashing, fourth-wall-destroying mayhem: often simplistic and shallow, but imaginative as well. Brace yourselves before going in. The blender is on.

Certainly, the Moulin Rouge itself makes a fine location for such an exercise. An infernal playground for the rich, the beautiful, and the desperately creative, it hides every indulgence beneath the blades of its colossal windmill. Here, on the brink of the twentieth century, the exotic courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) entrances men with her forbidden smile while fresh-faced playwright Christian (Ewan McGregor) and his band of bohemians plot to create the perfect play. Naturally, the two find themselves hopelessly in love, even though Satine has been promised to the cruel Duke (Richard Roxburgh) in exchange for financial support of Christian's play. Luhrmann heaps layer upon visual layer to this rather thin exposition, from the outfits of the can-can dancers to the bewildering special effects and editing tricks. Every image on-screen is packed with information and while it doesn't add up to much, that's not really the point. Luhrmann is concerned with the sheer joy of artifice and can't be bothered to lend his images much resonance.

As if the imagery weren't enough, Moulin Rouge is also a musical, and covers vast tracts of time in nothing but song. Here is where the film's postmodern sensibilities really shine. Luhrmann refuses to be constrained by period music, and dives deeply into modern rock for its themes. The Rouge's wealthy patrons croon "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the dancers, while Queen's "The Show Must Go On" punctuates the film's dramatic crescendo. Though they elicit more giggles than respect, there's something ebulliently joyful about such a brazen mix. It's hard to suppress the delight during Kidman's marvelous rendition of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" (with a dash of "Material Girl" thrown in for good measure) or the raw Argentinean tango performed to the Police's "Roxanne."

In light of all of that, it's perhaps inevitable that the story is often lost in the din. Under most circumstances, this would be acceptable as a survival tool if nothing else. An overly complicated plot would drown beneath this movie's spectacle, and simple, broad strokes are perhaps the only way to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, Luhrmann wants us to care about his characters while simultaneously insisting on undermining the drama with self-reflexive riffs. The need to have its cake and eat it too is what ultimately undoes Moulin Rouge despite its admirable qualities. Every sense of genuine emotion becomes a joke, every intimation of real humanity turns into a wink at the audience. By exposing the film's artifice so nakedly, Luhrmann denies Moulin Rouge the chance to really move us... even though he clearly wants to. The actors almost make it work -- Kidman's celebrity status often obscures her very real talent, and she and McGregor work hard to provide Moulin Rouge with its few precious moments of humanity -- but even their Herculean efforts can't rise above the constant pokes in the ribs. The self-reflexivity finally becomes more irritating than illuminating, and Luhrmann simply lacks the discipline to know when to stop.

If nothing else, Moulin Rouge helps refine the notion of spectacle. Cinema's infinite visual capacity has long been used primarily for explosions and spaceships, and it's always refreshing to see something new. (Frankly, I'll take Nicole Kidman in fishnets over any spaceship ever conceived.) The sheer inventiveness of Moulin Rouge keeps it from ever becoming boring, and I guarantee you won't see its like again soon. But restraint is still a virtue and without at least a little self-discipline, the film can't make us believe in its magic for long. Like its seductive protagonists, it wants to show us everything it can... but never reveals what we really want to see.

Review published 06.03.2001.

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