REVIEW: “Moulin Rouge!”

MOILIN ROUGE POSTEROn the surface there’s nothing about the 2001 romantic musical “Moulin Rouge!” that would draw me to it. I’m overly picky and less enthusiastic about musicals than any other movie genre. Baz Luhrmann’s schizophrenic style of filmmaking isn’t something I naturally gravitate towards. Also Nicole Kidman is an actress that I appreciate but who has never really blown me away. So I sat out during the movie’s release and eventual Oscar run. “Moulin Rouge!” would go on to earn 8 Oscar nominations including a Best Actress nod for Kidman. It would win two for Costume Design and Art Direction.

It’s been over 10 years since the release of “Moulin Rouge!” and I’ve finally caught up with it. It’s funny, it wasn’t the music or the popularity or the Oscar recognition that finally got me to sit down and give this film a shot. It was my very real and deep-seated affection for the city of Paris. This proves to be fairly misplaced motivation. The beauty and essence of Paris is never explored or injected into the story and my overall “Moulin Rouge!” experience danced between stimulation and tedium.

I won’t deny that “Moulin Rouge!” has its moments. There’s a visual flare that Luhrmann has that’s undeniable. Here he presents a kaleidoscope of hyperactive visual pageantry. The colors and the pizazz leap off the screen as he moves from one shot to the next at break-neck speed. The problem is he milks it for all its worth, especially in the first half of the film. There’s an almost sensory overload as he bombards us with wild, raucous dance sequences, painted faces, and swirling dresses in a relentless parade of musical debauchery that had me ready to leave Montmartre and head to the more pensive and subdued Latin Quarter.

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Yet, just as I was ready to check out, there would be some little nugget that kept me there. Whenever Luhrmann would dial things back the movie would take a better turn and I could latch on. These are the moments where we get into the actual story. It’s set in 1899 Paris. A young writer named Christian (Ewen McGregor) moves to Montmartre with hopes of experiencing the true Bohemian life of the area. Christian is a wide-eyed idealist who has a special boyish obsession with love, something he has never truly experienced before.

Luhrmann instantly begins to lay out his unusual world. His depiction of Bohemian life opens up on a frantic sugar rush. He quickly baptizes Christian into this weird world through a wacky assortment of characters. He runs into an eccentric group of artists and performers who acquire his help in finishing their musical production. Their ultimate goal is to sell their show to Mr. Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the proprietor of the wild and rowdy Moulin Rouge. The biggest attraction of the Moulin Rouge is the beautiful Satine (Nicole Kidman) and Christian is instantly smitten with her. But Zidler has other plans for his most prized property especially after she catches the eye of a wealthy Duke and potential financier (Richard Roxburgh). If Christian is going to win her love he’s going to have to fight for it.

Listening to that setup of the plot you would think there was a pretty strong story in place but it’s actually a bit anemic. There is an interesting romance in there but it ends up being swallowed up by the injections of peculiar song numbers that feel terribly out of place at times. We get big show versions of everything from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Clearly these wild song choices worked for many people but for me they got in the way of something much more interesting – the complicated romance between Christian and Satine. Luhrmann does allow the romance more breathing room in the final act but by that time I felt worn down by the relentless pomp and spectacle. Luhrmann hasn’t an ounce of subtlety and here he flexes his hyper-stylized muscle whenever he can.

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Even though the more interesting story is smothered for much of the movie, it still manages to stay interesting thanks to the fantastic performances of the two leads. Ewen McGregor is great and watching his character move from innocent naivity to someone who has the harsh realities of the world revealed to him is great fun. But for me it was Kidman’s performance that not only stole the show but kept the movie going. She was a key reason I wanted to sit through the patented teeth-grinding Luhrmann scenes. Kidman is the one performer who has a lot to do and I found her work to be fascinating. Broadbent was okay but his character was so wacky and it was hard for me to get passed that. John Leguizamo has a fairly nice sized role as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was a noted French artist but in this film his scenes mirror what I would imagine an acid trip to be like. He’s all over the place and comes off as a clown. Now considering the difficult life Toulouse-Lautrec had, from his childhood struggles to his crippling health problems which resulted in his death at age 36, this portrayal of him could be construed as an insult. Either way it didn’t work for me.

Unfortunately that also sums up my overall reaction to “Moulin Rouge!”. It just didn’t work for me. It’s a shame really because under the heavy coating of Baz Luhrmann’s mind-numbing stylistic excess lies a romantic tale that actually has heart. It’s a romance that’s made all the more interesting by two deeply commited lead performances. But sadly that doesn’t erase the countless times I was rolling my eyes or checking the time. I know “Moulin Rouge!” has a following and if you can connect to this type of schizophrenic storytelling you’ll probably find a lot to like here. But for me it was a case of too much visual insanity, too many poor choices for songs, and not enough of the central romance. That’s enough to keep “Moulin Rouge!” off my rewatch list for quite some time.


39 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Moulin Rouge!”

    • He’s quite good as is Kidman. Unfortunately their dramatic moments were about all that was interesting and I thought it nearly drown in all the other stuff.

  1. Great review. Sad to see you didn’t like it, as it’s one of my favorites, but I can totally understand your reasoning. Loved McGregor and Kidman’s performances, and the music doesn’t bother me. What I don’t love is it’s farcical humor.

    • It has a really big following and I certainly respect that. It just didn’t work for me at all (for all the reasons mentioned). I do really appreciate the two lead performances. They were really impressive.

  2. I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s one I’ll be checking out eventually, due to its status as an Oscar nominee (along with its predecessor). But I suspect my overall opinion will be like yours.

    • It’s really about 30 to 45 minutes of story stuck in a lot of hyper-stylized wildness. Lots of people like it so you may too. Not my cup of tea though.

  3. 2 stars Keith? Harsh, man. I’m not the biggest musical fan but I have to admit that I enjoyed this one. It was a complete surprise to me as everything that this film has is normally the things that I avoid in a film. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so my opinion may have changed.

    By the way, is it just me or does Kidman role of Satine sound too close to Satan? Leaving us with a Christian and a Satan? Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I could never shake that one off.

    • Didn’t make that connection but you may be onto something.

      This is really a favorite for a lot of people but I’m just not a fan. I found myself checking the time and almost checking out but then it would finally get back to its central story. All of the issues I mentioned in the review were pretty big stumbling blocks for me. I just couldn’t get passed them.

  4. It’s a shame you didn’t enjoy this one, Keith. It’s number 2 on my Top 3 Films of all time, right behind Armageddon. Which may just show you what kinds of films I like. terrific casting, terrific score and soundtrack, and utterly captivating production design. What a film. Majestic!!

    • Well could have a good old school Siskel and Ebert moment if given the chance, LOL. The two lead performances were the best thing about it for me. Kidman especially blew me away. But I really thought the music (made up of only one original song) was hideous. I also found Luhrmann’s self-indulgent style to be relentless. I mean there’s only about 40 minutes worth of story here. Everything else is Luhrmann’s out of control sugar rush in visual form.

      BUT, obviously I’m in the minority here. Lots of people like this movie and it certainly gained some critics favor and the Academy’s attention. Perfectly understandable that you and others would appreciate the film. I just couldn’t get behind it.

  5. Everything says I should hate this but I actually didn’t mind it. Not one of my favourite film by any stretch of the imagination, but I actually thought it was alright. I do agree it goes a little over the top at times, though. It’s like one sugar rush!

  6. Nice review. You hit my exact thoughts, in fact I’d rate it even lower. It embraced style over substance and there were far better films in 2001 that deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture.

    • I can appreciate your take on it. I thought it was a complete and utter self-indulgent mess. I felt it took its best thing and smothered it with flowery pomp and annoying music. Give me Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris any day.

  7. Awesome review, interesting that it was your admiration for Paris that led you to seeing it. I like the movie much more than you did but I’m glad you liked Kidman in it, she was just wonderful, such a lovely singing voice too.

    • Thanks for checking out my review. Appreciate the kind words. I thought Kidman was fabulous. She really sold me not only on her character but the romance. She was the best part of the movie for me hands-down.

      Thanks again! I haven’t been beat up too bad for my 2 star score but I have found out that a lot of people love this movie.

  8. Great review Keith, it’s almost poetic and your love for Paris really came through 😉 Unfortunately, I’d have to vehemently disagree w/ you. I LOVE Moulin Rouge! and the positives far outweighed the flaw for me. Yes I agree the first segment before Christian and Satine met was too much, so ‘sensory overload’ is right on. But I totally bought the romance, even the goofy way they met w/ Christian being confused as the Duke was a hoot! I adore the music here, I listen to the soundtrack often in my car, and the anachronism work well in this one. The whole Tango scene was one of the highlights for me, it’s so beautifully choreographed and packed an emotional punch as well. I agree though Kidman was great and like you, I’m generally not into her that much. Ah well, can’t agree w/ everything I guess.

    • Hey that’s true. That’s the great thing about movies. They can speak to different people in different ways. Honestly this thing drove me nuts. I wanted so much to get to the meat of what made the story for me – the romance. But Luhrmann just piled on the pomp. Too much for my boring old taste. 😉 I also thought the Toulouse-Lautrec depiction was pretty bad.

      Some of this may have to do with my weird pickiness when it comes to musicals. I dunno.

      • Yeah, I guess to each their own, right? This one happens to be my favorite musicals, and also my fave soundtracks. I actually rewatched it often though I must admit I skip a few parts, but the romance is quite strong to me, and I initially thought it was an odd pairing (Kidman and McGregor) but they won me over.

  9. I am a sucker for Lurhman. Moulin Rouge is one of my favourite films… which is weird because I hate musicals and romantic anything but every time I watch it I end up a crying mess. I can see why it wouldn’t be for everyone though. Good review.

    • I completely respect your opinion on it. In fact I’ve quickly learned I’m in the minority with this one. I liked some things about it but overall it drove me crazy. 🙂

  10. Well I love musicals and I’ve enjoyed Luhrman’s style since “Strictly Ballroom”. When it first came out it was audacious, and the hyper-energetic style felt like a sugar rush to me. You describe it as a bad acid trip, I suspect the effect of this movie is similar to the impact of that drug on users, it is different for each person. To me, the story was flimsy and I am usually a story guy, but the singing was used creatively and I liked all the references even if they lasted only a moment. How they got clearance for all of that has got to be a story in itself. I understand your irritation with how Toulouse-Lautrec was treated as if he was a fictional character that they could do with as they please. When that happens to a person I admire in a serious film, it ticks me off as well. This movie is not really serious, it is a romantic fantasy that plays with images of Paris not the real Paris. So, I give it a pass on the offending deviation. As you can tell just from your readers, this movie divides the audience, this time I’m on the other side.

    • The majority definitely likes this movie but I just can’t latch onto it. For me there’s just a small amount of story and everything else is glitz and show. I see it as either you buy into that and enjoy it or you don’t. If you don’t enjoy it, there’s barely enough story to keep you involved. At least that was the case with me.

      The lack of any use of Paris itself really wasn’t a big deal to me. Hopeful expectations were what drew me to it. The music came across as gimmicky to me, not clever or inventive. And some didn’t seem to fit at all even with their show tune sound.

      I don’t know, maybe I’m just too picky. But for me I had a hard time seeing what all the fuss was over. But who knows, maybe I’ll give it another shot in a few years. Just no time soon. 🙂

  11. Pingback: » Movie Review – Moulin Rouge! on Blu-Ray (Blu-Review) Fernby Films

  12. Pingback: » Movie Review – Moulin Rouge! Fernby Films

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