1 June 2001
by LOUIS B. HOBSON
Moulin Rouge is here and the movie musical will never be quite the same again.
It's the most audacious, sensual, brilliantly electric movie musical since Bob Fosse's Cabaret.
With Moulin Rouge, director Baz Luhrmann doesn't reinvent the screen musical but he does show how far the genre can and should go. It pushes the envelope even further than Evita did, with far less material to work with, making it a pure triumph of style and pizzazz over substance.
As his starting point, Luhrmann, who wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce, looks to Alexandre Dumas' Camille, the story of a dying courtesan who falls in love with an innocent young man.
Nicole Kidman is Satine, the most desirable courtesan at the infamous Moulin Rouge cabaret.
Satine, who wants to become a serious actress, falls in love with Christian (Ewan McGregor), a virginal young English writer who is even more smitten with Satine than she is with him. Christian is writing a musical for Satine that will transform the Moulin Rouge into a legitimate theatre and her into France's next Sarah Bernhardt.
Unfortunately for the young lovers, in order for all this to happen, Satine must become the mistress of the lecherous but wealthy Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh).
Though set in Paris in 1900, Moulin Rouge features songs written or made famous by Madonna, Sting, Elton John, Queen, John Lennon, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Dolly Parton.
The incongruity works for Moulin Rouge in a crafty, subversive way that provides as much pathos and insight as humour, giving Moulin Rouge the universality it needs to connect with a contemporary audience.
The musical numbers are big, brash and unapologetically theatrical. They transport the characters and the audience to a fantastical world where lovers can walk on air and stars explode like fireworks.
The genius of Luhrmann's direction is that he can take the audience on a magical journey, yet in an instant yank them back into a heart-wrenching reality.
The characters may be singing, dancing and clowning around, but what Satine and Christian are feeling in their hearts is as real, painful and joyful as love itself.
Luhrmann's casting has ensured this.
Kidman is radiantly beautiful. She has a thin, sweet, melodic voice but she is an actress of amazing talent. She truly makes Satine's eyes the windows of the woman's soul.
By falling in love with Christian, Satine breaks the cardinal rule of the courtesan and she's doomed to pay for her folly.
When Satine flirts with the Duke, Kidman shows just how wily a seductress she is, but when Satine pours out her heart to Christian, Kidman shows what ecstasy can be found in true love.
If McGregor does not get an Oscar nomination, there is no justice in Hollywood.
He achieves the near impossible in making Christian a starry-eyed innocent without ever sacrificing the man's masculinity.
He sings and dances with as much sincerity and credibility as he pines for Satine or rages against her when she is forced to reject his love.
As Zidler, the manager of the Moulin Rouge and Satine's puppet master, Jim Broadbent epitomizes sleazy decadence.
His rendition of Madonna's Like a Virgin is a scene-stealer.
Roxburgh makes the Duke hateful while still managing to provide some of the film's best comic relief.
John Leguizamo turns Toulouse-Lautrec into the classic fool of literature. He's as wise as he is crass and funny.
Luhrmann's cameras are as brazen as the cancan dancers in the cabaret, giving Moulin Rouge a wonderfully campy and garish feel. The year's benchmark has been set.
Regardless of its genre, every movie this year must measure up to Moulin Rouge because this is what movies were meant to be. This is entertainment at its boldest, brassiest best.