We gave it a B-
In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, a whirling fantasia of rococo kitsch set in the legendary Paris nightclub circa 1900, the characters are ladies, gentlemen, dandies, courtesans, and bohemians — a remembrance, in other words, of things very much past — but we experience them in frenzied jump cut flashes, as if the director had staged the movie during an absinthe hallucination. When they open their mouths to express their inner selves, out come some of the most cherished pop songs of the late 20th century (”Roxanne,” ”Like a Virgin,” ”Smells Like Teen Spirit”), as well as snippets of ”The Sound of Music” and other precounterculture standards.
Christian (Ewan McGregor), an idealistic young writer devoted to the pursuit of ”truth, beauty, and love,” is ushered into the baroque sanctum of Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star of the Moulin Rouge’s naughty stocking flash stage show and the most coveted courtesan in Paris. After a few stabs at conversation, he lapses into a woozy warm rendition of Elton John’s ”Your Song,” and damned if the movie doesn’t caress our eardrums with romance. Moments later, the black sky has gone twirly psychedelic.
The rock opera, of course, is nothing new, but in ”Moulin Rouge,” the spectacle of rock employed in a period setting, funny and absurd as it often appears, speaks to us in a new and galvanizing way. It slashes through the distance that so many of us feel toward musicals, not just because the songs here really are our songs, but because the very incongruity evokes that casual, private dream world in which rock has become the daily libretto of our lives. As someone who considers himself a happy child of ”A Hard Day’s Night” and ”Tommy,” ”Scorpio Rising” and ”Saturday Night Fever” and MTV, I was more than willing to meet Luhrmann’s flaky, bedazzled experiment halfway. Visually, the movie, with its sumptuous digitized landscapes that turn Paris into a nocturnal urban layer cake, is a mirage of fin de siècle decadence: the gloriously cluttered slope of Montmartre, the red light windmill that sits atop the Moulin Rouge, advertising sin as a kind of mock historical prerogative.
But ”Moulin Rouge,” seductive as it can be, is also an extravaganza of shrill camp. What’s wrong with the picture has nothing to do with its audacious soundtrack; it’s that the film seems to have been directed by a madman with a palm buzzer. Luhrmann, who made ”Strictly Ballroom” and the revved into incoherence ”William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” shoves pinched and overly made up faces at us, and he smashes all sense of space and time, so that the floor of the Moulin Rouge comes off as a bad trip version of Studio 54 crossed with the ”Star Wars” cantina. The place is decorated with grotesque caricatures like Toulouse-Lautrec, played by John Leguizamo with a lisp that redefines ”tongue-tied,” and the rouged impresario Zidler (Jim Broadbent), a nightmare of unctuousness who makes the ”Cabaret” emcee look demure. Luhrmann, it’s clear, wants to be accused of going too far, but the result is a musical that substitutes irony for pop passion, misanthropic disjointedness for lyrical flow.
Luhrmann may turn out to be the Gen Y Ken Russell — a put-on libertine who bends the world around his gaudy hysterical rhythms. In ”Moulin Rouge,” for all of his glitzoid artifice, he’s rarely successful at using songs to gratify the musical junkie’s primal desire to merge with the characters’ hearts. By the second half, most of the rock spirit has leaked out of the movie, replaced by lugubrious neostudio system clichés. One has to wonder: Can the new rock musical survive, even thrive? You better believe it will, even if it has to go further than ”Moulin Rouge” does, refining and cultivating its own excess, to attain something like innocence.