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moulin rouge

review by rob gonsalves

Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann
Craig Pearce

Fred Baron
Martin Brown
Baz Luhrmann

Donald McAlpine

Craig Armstrong

Jill Bilcock


Nicole Kidman (Satine)
Ewan McGregor
Jim Broadbent
(Harold Zidler)
John Leguizamo
Richard Roxburgh
(Duke of Monroth)
Kylie Minogue
(The Green Fairy)
Jacek Koman
(The Argentinian)

mpaa rating: PG-13
running time: 127m
u.s. release: June 1, 2001
video availability: VHS - DVD
official website

What to do with a movie like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge? It demands to be taken on its own glitzy, stylized terms. It has been described as the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the season -- much like last year's equally bold (and far superior) musical Dancer in the Dark -- but I didn't love it or hate it; mostly I just stared at it in a trance of indifference, trying to stay awake. If you enjoyed Luhrmann's other two shimmering pop artifacts -- Strictly Ballroom and especially Romeo + Juliet -- chances are you'll fall in love with Moulin Rouge. If you like your films with a little less pizzazz and a little more substance, you'd do well to sit out this dance.

Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have constructed Moulin Rouge (which has nothing in particular to do with the 1952 John Huston film, except that it features Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, played a bit too avidly by John Leguizamo) not as a musical, exactly, but as a riff on The Musical. As in Pearl Harbor, everything in it is appropriated from somewhere else. For instance, here you have Christian (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive writer who loses his heart to dynamic courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). In a few ways, this could be called an uncredited remake of Cabaret, only without the troublesome Nazi milieu, except that it swipes from so many other sources that, ha-ha, no single creator has enough grounds for a lawsuit.

The "plot" is wafer-thin: Christian and Satine, who are working on some sort of show called Spectacular Spectacular, are frustrated in their affair by the attentions of a sneering duke (Richard Roxburgh) who wants Satine to himself. Rather stupidly, Christian and Satine craft their show as a veiled parallel to their own situation; also rather stupidly, the Duke takes forever to see the parallel even when someone in his presence, describing Christian's fictitious counterpart, slips and says "starving writer" instead of "starving sitar player."

It's probably no use to attack Moulin Rouge on logical grounds. Luhrmann thinks in terms of fragments, moments, visual opportunities. Working with the boldly painting cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who has a rich sense of color and an unerring sense for how to frame an interesting composition, Luhrmann sabotages McAlpine's work, more often than not, by being too restless in the editing room. I often say of editing-happy directors, "If you don't like a shot, wait two seconds and it'll change"; here it's more like "If you like a shot, don't get too attached to it, because in two seconds it'll change."

Christian and Satine often serenade each other, using snippets of modern-day rock love ballads, which I guess is supposed to make this turn-of-the-century romantic fable more relevant to the teenagers of the turn of this century. I almost never felt that the pop songs (including Elton John, the Beatles, David Bowie, and many others) worked for the movie, and in one case -- when a group of men break into the chorus of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- I found it embarrassing. Kidman and McGregor aren't really singers; they sell their crooning more on attitude than on skill, and that goes for their overall performances, too. McGregor has the right look -- brilliant eyes, brilliant teeth -- for a big-movie-musical leading man, and Kidman is breathtaking in her many costume changes, but when they have to be still and communicate with each other it's amateur hour (and, I hasten to add, they haven't been amateurish elsewhere). They simply have no chemistry.

I wish I could support Moulin Rouge, because it's certainly not timid (except, perhaps, for the choice of soundtrack tunes slavishly geared to teens) and there's nothing else out there remotely like it. It's the sort of overstuffed extravaganza that, if it works for you, really works for you, and if it doesn't, really doesn't. Talent and, yes, vision have gone into this project. Baz Luhrmann isn't a hack; you feel he believes passionately in what he puts on the screen (much like Paul Thomas Anderson, another virtuoso who swings for the fence and misses), and some of the movie's enraptured lack of irony is refreshing. Luhrmann is straining to achieve something new, original, different. He should've started with the script.

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