For days now I’ve had Ewan MacGregor’s voice in my head, belting out snippets of songs: “The hills are alive, with the sound of music...” and “I hope you don’t mind / I hope you don’t mind / that I’ve put into words / how wonderful life is, now you’re in the world.”
Friends have been sympathetic, but they needn’t be.
“It was 1899, the summer of love”
PG-13 for sexual content
The film is set during the heyday of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. Unlike the film’s namesake from 1952, it does not try to be a historical depiction. Instead it is an expressionist flight of fancy, an energetic operatic musical, the first sign of a post-pop-culture era.
Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a British writer who hooks up with a crowd of bohemian artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec (played with whimsy by John Leguizamo).
The artists are trying to write a play, and Christian helps them get past their collective block. In their gratitude they give him his first taste of absinthe, then take him to see the exotic, sybaritic floor show at the Moulin Rouge (“where the rich and powerful come to meet the young and beautiful”).
The floor show features relentless singing and dancing, sexual energy, pent-up passion, and youthful enthusiasm. The scene of the floor show lasts about half again as long as you might anticipate, and by the time it’s done, you’re exhausted. In fact, the best thing about Moulin Rouge is its first hour, whose energy more than makes up for some flaws at the end.
The centerpiece of the show is Satine (Nicole Kidman), whose anachronistic signature song is “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Already enthralled by her show, Christian falls head over heels in love when he meets her in person.
Medley of Love
The music in Moulin Rouge is not just the can-can; it’s pop music from the last hundred years, right up to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Christian sings Satine the most amazing medley of love songs ever strung together. Elton John segues into The Beatles, Dolly Parton, and a dozen others in a ten-minute musical collage.
Ewan McGregor proves to be a surprisingly good singer. His rich, strong baritone sounds well trained and bold. His entire performance — acting and singing — really sells Luhrmann’s crazy energetic vision. Through it all, McGregor never loses his bright-eyed, youthful enthusiasm for Love.
Apart from the considerable energy of the film, Moulin Rouge offers some stunning visual effects. Paris of 1899 is computer-generated to look like meticulously made models, and the photography that invites us into the city has the flickering, shallow focus of early hand-cranked wooden cameras.
The look is expressionist in that inward emotions are rendered outwardly in the vivid reds, flashy diamonds, and heart-shaped windows in elephant-shaped buildings. Luhrmann and his production designer, Catherine Martin, didn’t hold back, they went all the way, past silly, and into outrageously, unselfconsciously imaginative.
No expense was spared to make Moulin Rouge a treat for the eyes and a feast for the imaginations of moviegoers. Although I’m sure the DVD will be a best-seller, seeing it in your living room will simply not do the movie justice. See it on the biggest screen you can find.
A Flaw in the Diamond
The second half of the movie is too long. In fact, I saw people leave before the final ending (the opening reveals a bookended structure to the film), choosing to take the penultimate ending as their personal stopping point. And I can’t blame them. Even the penultimate ending came too weak and too late.
Because of the energy upfront, the movie is exhausting. So by the time the end comes around, it can’t help but be anticlimactic. I’m not sure where the film should have been cut (maybe the Like a Virgin number?). In any case, the last hour should have only been 40 minutes long.
Still, in spite of a few flaws, Moulin Rouge stands out as the most ambitious, the most daring, and the most entertaining movie of the year.