On 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.
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.
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.