..

MOULIN ROUGE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, John Leguizamo
Director:  Baz Luhrmann
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  December 18, 2001

“The show will be a magnificent opulent tremendous stupendous gargantuan bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment!”

Film ***1/2

Baz Luhrmann is a director with seemingly no inhibitions…he rolls the dice and goes for broke film after film.  The results aren’t always enchanting…in fact, I found his William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet to be one of the most headache-inducing films of its year…but I still admired his chutzpah and bravado to do what he did with it, even if the overall results were less than enthralling.

With Moulin Rouge, the third film in his so-called “Red Curtain” series, he has just the material to suit his flamboyant go-for-broke style.  His approach is just as bold, setting a fantastic, colorful story in a real and legendary Paris nightclub in 1900, using modern songs in bombastic Andrew Lloyd Webber overtones, and taking what is essentially trite melodrama and milking it for all of its comic and tragic possibilities.  The finished film is a visual and sonic wonderwork, accented by two wonderful lead performances and a strong supporting cast, but made vivid by Luhrmann’s own imaginative eye.  It is an experience in pure cinema.

The story itself is hardly original…more than once, I found myself thinking about Shakespeare in Love, for example.  Both movies revolve around a writer creating a story for the stage out of his own romantic interlude, and both featured real historic figures as characters.  In Moulin Rouge, we even have the likes of Erik Satie and Toulouse-Lautrec (Leguizamo).

It is into these artists’ Bohemian world that our leading man Christian (McGregor) arrives.  He is an aspiring writer and poet from England who has come to Paris to indulge his artistic passions.  Fate lands him the role of scripting a new play for the Moulin Rouge, a decadent, bawdy nightclub whose owner Zidler (Broadbent) dreams of turning into a legitimate theatre.

A simple misunderstanding has Christian meeting up with the club’s star courtesan, Satine (Kidman)…he believes he is to audition himself as a poet to her, while she mistakes him for the rich Duke (Roxburgh) she has been ordered to placate in order to get the show the financing it needs!

A love triangle ensues.  The normally professional Satine and the sweet but naïve Christian find themselves falling in love.  The Duke also loves Satine, and his jealous plotting is fueled by the monetary grip he has over the Moulin Rouge.  How will it all end?

Well, the story is told somewhat in flashback form with Christian writing his and Satine’s story, and there are other revelations made early on…you’ll see where it’s all going long before the main characters even do.  But knowing how the story ends is no dramatic flaw here…in fact, the plot is nothing more or less than the type of melodrama that used to flicker across the screen in the silent film era.  There is a real love story here, and we buy into it.  We care about the characters, no matter how many times we’ve seen their sort before.  And we love the heightened world of the Moulin Rouge, which plays more like a memory that has “improved” with time rather than an unflappable photograph…all of these elements combine to elevate the material beautifully.

If Luhrmann has one artistic flaw, it is his incessant penchant for rapid fire MTV editing.  Those responsible for cutting his movies probably earn serious overtime…if they can ever talk him into getting paid by the cut, their careers would turn lucrative overnight.  There’s a time and place for everything, and Luhrmann sadly disrupts magnificent choreography (see the uncut dance sequences on Disc Two) by hacking them into short staccato bits that takes away from its splendor. 

But his use of modern music is brilliant…sometimes the effect is warmly comical (wait until you see Broadbent singing “Like a Virgin”), at other times, lovely and romantic.  Elton John’s “Your Song” takes on an entirely new meaning here, and the medley in which Satine and Christian come together is arguably the year’s most joyful movie moment.  You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, but Luhrmann hasn’t, and he uses them to capture and enhance the spirit of his picture.  Most rewarding of all, however, is the knowledge that both McGregor and Kidman do their own singing in the movie.  Both have very nice voices…Ms. Kidman’s, in fact, may just leave you stunned and agape.

All things considered, Moulin Rouge is definitely a movie that takes risks that seem reckless, but are definitely carefully calculated.  Luhrmann probably knew that his film wasn’t going to please everybody.  I’m guessing the studio must have, too, but the amount of money they probably spent on this lavish production was a great showing of faith.  I hope it won’t be the last.  Moulin Rouge is, overall, indicative of the kind of picture we need more of.

P.S. - Is there any religious significance to the names Christian and Satine?  Inquiring minds want to know...

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic transfer represents a stunning rendering of the film’s eclectic visual style.  It’s one of the most colorful pictures I’ve ever seen, almost to the point of being gauche from time to time, but this DVD is a near-perfect example of the format’s capability.  While the color scheme gets most of the attention, and come across with beautiful tones, excellent contrast and no noticeable bleeding, the occasional darker scene suffers a bit.  There is loss of detail when the lights get low, and even a bit of compression ringing and a slight touch of grain.  Dark clothes, for example (of which there aren’t many), are just a wash of dark that almost look like a projection screen effect.  I think the inclusion of the DTS soundtrack along with the two commentaries and extra production features on the first disc may have caused some corner-cutting in the amount of available space.  Had the DTS track been offered on a separate version, this might have been a perfect looking transfer instead of only a very near one.

Audio ***1/2

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix boasts plenty of dynamic range during the musical numbers…in fact, I’ve rarely seen productions so expressive with the way they run from near silence to overwhelmingly powerful in just a measure or two.  Those moments are where the disc shines most, with full front and rear stage usage and bottom end supplied by the .1 channel.  At other times, the mix is more pedestrian, with good dialogue and clean sound, but nothing much happening outside of the front stage.  Still, this is a quality mix overall, and it comes through at the most demanding moments.

Features ****

This is another impressive package of extras from Fox.  Disc One contains the movie, and all the features on it relate to the experience of watching the film.  You can choose from two commentary tracks, the first featuring Luhrmann with production designer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Don McAlpine, while the second features co-writers Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.  Take your pick; both are extremely informative listens.  While you run one or the other, you might opt for the “Behind the Red Curtain” feature, which pops a green fairy on screen during certain parts of the movie.  Hit ‘enter’ on your remote, and you’ll see a multitude of vignettes detailing the making of certain scenes, including in-depth looks at production designs and camera effects.  Rounding out disc one is a descriptive audio track for the visually impaired.

Disc Two starts with an HBO behind-the-scenes documentary featuring cast and crew interviews.  If that’s not enough, Kidman, McGregor, Leguizamo, Broadbent and Roxburgh all appear for additional cast interviews as a bonus.  There is also a featurette with Luhrmann and Craig Pierce on the writing of the film, a marketing gallery that includes trailers, TV spots, production photo essays, poster concepts and more.  There are is also a deleted scenes segment with editor Jill Bilcock, a multi-angle capable look at the full dance numbers featuring an interview with choreographer John O’Connell, three music videos including both the video and live performance of the hit “Lady Marmalade”, and an art design segment with Catherine Martin featuring concept to film comparisons of sets and costumes, and more. 

Oh, and happy hunting for some terrific Easter eggs on Disc Two, including a gag reel, behind-the-scenes with John Leguizamo, and much more.  A tremendous package all around.

Summary:

Moulin Rouge isn’t going to please everybody, but the adventurous will be rewarded by an audacious director who infuses common material with an ambitious visual style, a daring use of music, and great casting that brings to life a Paris that never really was except in our own romantic imaginations.  It’s not a perfect film, but still wonderful enough to stand as one of the year’s best achievements in filmmaking.