WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Bohemian, revolutionary writer Christian arrives in the naughtiest part of turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and falls in love with Satine, the intended prize of the Duke who has invested in the show Christian has written and Satine is due to star in. Jealousy and fate are destined to get in the way of beauty, truth, freedom and love.
De trop. My overall impression of Moulin Rouge! is that it is just too much: too much colour, too much movement, too many sounds competing for attention, conveying an exhausting range of emotions in two hours’ staged traffic. Baz Luhrmann’s Frankenstein’s monster of a musical, stitching together songs from wherever he can find them, is an assault on the eyes and ears that overwhelms the viewer until you beg for mercy.
At any rate, this was my first impression of Moulin Rouge! Watching it again, it’s only really true of the film’s first act, which sets up the complicated tangle of relationships between idealist Christian (Ewan McGregor), courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and Moulin Rouge owner and showman supreme Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). We are introduced to all these characters in dizzying fashion, the film slow like a silent film one second, sped-up and sounding like a cartoon the next. Once we are transported inside the Moulin Rouge itself, we are treated to a riot of fluorescent colour, a room bursting with people and a soundtrack overflowing with songs from all eras (Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend rubs shoulders with Smells Like Teen Spirit).
It’s difficult to know whether such unfettered imagination should be applauded or ridiculed. The scene is unbelievably busy, probably too busy, and really shouldn’t work. Whether it does or not will probably reflect your mood on the day: some days it will overpower you, but if you have the energy the film’s first set piece is an absolute knockout.
On top of this you have Nicole Kidman. The plot contrives for Satine to meet Christian, believing him to be the Duke, and thinking she must seduce him in order to gain investment for a ‘proper’ play to be staged at the Moulin Rouge. I don’t know whether Kidman aimed for kooky, funny, sexy or all three, but I find her squealing performance whilst Christian attempts to read his poetry bizarre, almost to the point of derangement. It is certainly beaucoup de trop. This leads into a fine moment when McGregor bursts into Your Song, followed by some more weird comedy with hyper-frenetic cutting as the Duke, and many other unexpected guests explain the plot of the play-within-the-film. This section is again cartoonish, but my main problem with it is the misuse of ‘delighting’ to make a rhyme.
Act One concludes with a pretty medley as Christian and Satine declare their love to each other; and from this point on the film, for the most part, calms down. Actually, it quickly takes a dark turn with the revelation that Satine is suffering from consumption and will never fulfil her dream of being a famous actress like Sarah Bernhardt. In any event, the film is framed by McGregor writing the story a year later, telling us Satine’s fate and lending Moulin Rouge! a slightly doomed air no matter how gaudily it paints itself; this is embodied in the character of Zidler, the ebullient impresario who constantly presents a brave face in the face of disaster and ruin.
If you have stuck with the film past the first act, the rest plays out the touching, doomed and jealousy-fuelled love triangle in reasonably measured fashion, repeatedly emphasising the sadness of the scenario. Roxburgh reveals the Duke to be a control freak of the worst kind, despite his outward foppishness. The Roxanne Tango is a treat and McGregor and Kidman sing nicely, especially Come What May, the one song written specifically for the film. Broadbent doesn’t sing so nicely, but the dancers whirling during his, erm, unique version of Like a Virgin are a welcome distraction. There’s plenty to enjoy in the lavish finale too, though given Satine’s tragic destiny the business with the Duke’s gun-wielding henchman may be a complication too far.
Quick-slow, happy-sad, bright-dark, Moulin Rouge! is a film of extreme contrasts, as brilliant one second as it is childish the next. It must be given credit for revitalising interest in the film musical, even as it goes against musical form with its downbeat ending, containing no sense of victory or celebration at the end (the director’s dedication to his father may explain this). As entertainment Moulin Rouge! always provides something fascinating to watch or listen to, though you will need to forgive, if not embrace, its excesses. Depending on your state of mind before you start watching, you may think this too much to ask.