In today's sex crazed cinema, how could a film about French whores possibly go wrong? Baz Luhrman is no fool, and he knows how to make a statement. But with Moulin Rouge, he's really gone out on a limb.
Filled with modern pop culture references and contemporary themes, Moulin Rouge is set in turn of the centruy Paris, at the heart of France's bohemian revolution. The Moulin Rouge itself is a decadent French nightclub, where everything is for sale, especially the women. But the club owner and his whores have dreams for something more, and Moulin Rouge, in addition to being the story of two people and their forbidden love, is also about the Moulin Rouge's struggle for legitimacy as the club owner attempts to transform it into a legitimate theater.
While consistently surprising, and venerably beautiful, Moulin Rouge gets off to a rather shaky start. Indeed, judging from the first twenty minutes, Moulin comes off as a bad MTV parody, filled with excessive camera switches, loud flashing colors, and seemingly out of place pop music, while bereft of actual content. But the film matures, eventually opting for a more suitable style and pace as the story focuses in on its two star crossed lovers, Satine (played by Nicole Kidman) and Christian (Ewan McGregor).
After those first few annoying moments, Moulin Rouge quickly settles down into a beautiful and touching drama, mixed with waves of musical comedy and angst in an amazingly beautiful world unlike anything seen before. Luhrman's creative flair is completely unfettered, treating us to visual spectacles both darkly deceptive and intensely bright. The music, whether it be Madonna's "Like a Virgin" or the Police's "Roxanne" winds its way through the tale like a shiny blue serpent, bringing together moments of tension and moments of humor as part of a complete and touching whole.
Its clear that Luhrman knew exactly what he was doing in his music selection, for not only is the audience's emotion influenced by the song's words and music, but by the identity and feelings associated with their original versions. One can't help but quiver as the big Narcissistic Argentinean breaks into his guttural and deep rendition of "Roxanne". Nor could the audience resist a few chuckles when Moulin Rouge owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent) placates the villainous duke with his own version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin".
But the spotlight does not belong to Luhrman's creative vision alone, for his actors too turn in heady performances. Of special note are the stars, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, who not only manage to fully capture the emotion and motivation of their two intense characters, but display heretofore unknown singing talent as well. Then there's John Leguisamo, the perennial cinematic clown, who's most notable roles so far have been as second tier video game characters and psychotic comic book clowns. Here he plays Toulouse Latrec, 19th century artist, drunken clown, and diminutive sage of the bohemian revolution. Not only does he sing with great luster, but he can apparently act as well, bouncing from character to character scene to scene with an almost uncanny ability to nail every line as though it were his last.
Moulin Rouge is far from perfect, but as usual, Baz Luhrman has managed to create something new... a real rarity in today's recycled Hollywood. He may not resurrect the Musical, but perhaps in some small part he can help recreate the excitement and creativity that so many writers and directors seem to have forgotten.