Reviewed by Tom Mangan
(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)
Moulin Rouge was beguiling from the moment I wriggled it out of its case from the video store. I could see that the tape had to be rewound, but the rewind happened so quickly that I figured the previous renter had given up on it in the first 15-20 minutes.
A full rewind tells me only the previous renter was a clod, but a partial rewind invites a tantalizing bit of guesswork: What would provoke the casual film fan to mutter "this is nuts," write off his three dollars as lost and hit Eject so early in the film?
I figured it it had to be when the ornate musical dance number set in a 1900 Paris nightclub launched into the chorus from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
That instant pretty much defines whether you'll like Moulin Rouge. If you laugh out loud and groove along, you're there. If you're mystified or dumbfounded, you'll want to turn to the next video in the pile.
The story: A penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), shows up in a Bohemian Paris suburb, falls in with a group of theater types with pretensions of revolution, and gets snared into their plans to create a new kind of theater.
Early on, the troupe is fighting for the right words for a scene: They keep mentioning hills and music and things being in the air.
It's a hilarious and incongruous scene that sets the mind calculating ... "Well, that song could have existed in 1900 ..."
Christian and his compatriots, inspired by the tune's beauty, hatch a plot to get the owner of the nearby Moulin Rouge nightclub to invest in their musical. The film's tone unfolds at the Moulin Rouge -- almost all the songs are cultural touchstones made famous by the likes of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe.
It's there that we meet the shimmering star of Moulin Rouge, Satine -- Nicole Kidman, in the sexiest role of her career. Satine is a beautiful, doomed courtesan desired by any man with an ounce of heterosexuality in him, but especially lusted after by McGregor and the aristocrat who becomes his rival.
The story unfolds along familiar lines, with poor boy and rich man vying for Satine's affections. The late-century pop songs meld into the script so exquisitely that you forget you've seen this story a thousand times before. On one level it's comedy -- Elton John's "Your Song" and Madonna's "Like a Virgin" bring chuckles at first -- but on another level it's music driving the plot.
Putting modern pop songs in a movie set 100 years ago (Satine singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" -- the nerve! seems nutty on its face, but let's face it, it's no crazier than the spontaneous bursting into song of movie musicals of lore. "Moulin Rouge!" exposes that absurdity, then revels in it. What starts as a subversion of the genre turns into a celebration of it. An impressive achievement, provided you can make that leap from "Why?" to "Why not?"