The Toronto Sun
1 June 2001
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Rouge is Staggering & Terrific
Part tragedy, comedy, musical

Baz Luhrmann's sassy, sensational Moulin Rouge launched last month's Cannes Film Festival with an hallucinogenic explosion.

It sent figurative shockwaves through the staid crowd.

It was as if Luhrmann -- Australia's post-modern Fellini -- were trying to open a surrealist carnival, not the celebration of Old World cinema that most of the rest of the fest became.

Not surprisingly, when the lights dimmed, Moulin Rouge was left out of the awards. Liv Ullmann's jury did not know what to make of such an audacious and extravagant piece of work that purists, unfairly, damned as too shallow.

But even the film's eye-popping pyrotechnics and the exotic theatricality of the piece were denied their due. The jury awarded its technical prize to a sound designer from China, not to the risk-taking Aussies.

Which brings us to another intriguing point. Moulin Rouge is an Australian film, although it went to Cannes under the banner of a Hollywood studio, 20th Century Fox.

Also, if you have seen Luhrmann's quirky Strictly Ballroom and his even more risky William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, then you know that Moulin Rouge springs full-blown from the mind of one of the world's most innovative filmmakers.

Luhrmann is a mad scientist of celluloid.

In the case of Moulin Rouge, which the director co-wrote with his childhood friend and collaborator, Craig Pearce, Luhrmann plunks us down in the famous Paris nightclub of the film's title in 1899-1900 for a little primal myth-making.

After an amusing intro -- involving the silouette of an orchestra conductor and the parting of huge red curtains, signalling the audience to suspend disbelief and enter a world that never existed -- we start at the end.

Right off we know that the courtesan heroine (Nicole Kidman at her best ever) is dead and the writer hero (Ewan McGregor as her perfect foil) is sadly penning the story of their tumultuous romance, and of her spectacular flame-out. She was torn between true love and her lust for fame.

The rest of the movie is an extended tragi-comic flashback that is more dreamscape than reality. This gives the filmmakers licence to do virtually anything -- and they do in re-inventing the Moulin Rouge, ratcheting it up and heightening the reality of Montmartre to the point of absurdity.

The sets, costumes and musical production numbers are just staggering. The pace is frenetic.

The music is jolting because the film careens wildly from authentic period pieces into 20th Century songs made famous by Madonna (Like A Virgin, Material Girl), Elton John (Your Song), The Police (Roxanne), Marilyn Monroe (Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend) and The Beatles (All You Need Is Love). At one point, McGregor bursts out in a rendition of the hills-are-alive ditty from Sound Of Music. It's hilarious.

The actors sell the story and the songs and the romance with fervour, although the quick cutting and extreme stylization of the film undercut the emotional truth of the story, which is why many critics think the movie is too shallow.

But Kidman and McGregor are terrific, John Leguizamo is fabulously twisted as Toulouse Lautrec, and both Jim Broadbent as the nightclub owner and Richard Roxburgh as the villainous Svengali figure are impressive.

In the end, Moulin Rouge has to be savoured as an all-or-nothing theatrical experience, a whole that is far more dazzling than the sum of its individual parts.