by Ed Symkus
Although the name Baz Luhrmann is not yet anything approaching a household one, a surprising number of people in a diverse array of households have seen the Australian director's films. Strictly Ballroom was a good-sized arthouse hit, and Romeo + Juliet tickled the fancy of a large chunk of younger moviegoers.
Music has so far been and will most likely continue to be the backbone of anything he does, and with his newest, Moulin Rouge, he thumbs his nose at the conventions of the standard movie musical. This has certainly been done before, most recently by Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You, but nobody's ever done it quite like Luhrmann. He's obviously familiar with the musical form -- tell a story, surround it with songs that push the story along, tell more of the story, keep the music flowing -- but from this film's first frame, it's even more obvious that he both loves and has had enough of musicals. It's time to reinvent the genre.
And he does it furiously. The opening consists of an orchestra conductor going through what are probably the maddest gyrations ever seen coming from a pit. He might as well be Pee Wee Herman let loose with a baton. And then, whoosh, the film virtually explodes into a run through the skies and streets and buildings of Paris in 1900. If Luhrmann's name wasn't on the film's posters, there would be no way to be sure this wasn't something coming from the mind of Tim Burton.
But Luhrmann soon takes the project and makes it his own. Early word from critics who saw it a couple weeks ago hints that anyone watching it should give it five minutes before deciding whether or not to stay. That's ridiculous for any movie. But it would be a downright shame for anyone to walk out on this after five minutes, as it only gets stronger as it goes along. To be sure, it comes on like an assault -- both visual and aural. From the introduction of a sweaty, disturbed writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) banging out an overwrought story on his typewriter, we're propelled back a year to when he first arrived in Paris. He is himself introduced to a bawdy group of artsy intellectuals including the diminutive Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo, with amazing visual effects making him tiny), and the over-the-top, show-must-go-on believer Zidler (Jim Broadbent), who runs the infamous nightclub Moulin Rouge.
But can struggling poet Christian really hope to hook up with and become one of these Bohemian revolutionaries? More important, can he get to know the luscious and leggy "sparkling diamond" named Satine (Nicole Kidman), who holds forth from the floor (and above the floor) of the club every night? Most important, is it true that if one drinks too much absinthe, one starts to see green fairies?
This is one of those rare films in which anyone watching is going to be grabbed about the throat and shaken, and it's going to feel pretty darn good. The club we regularly visit is a place of madness, the kind of place Dante might have written about, but everyone is having fun. And like the camera that regularly flies through the Parisian skies, the laws of physics do not apply here; nor do they seem to anywhere in the film. Much of it takes place on rooftops, from which some people balance and/or swing.
Of its use of contemporary songs in a setting of 100 years ago, it's done much better here than in A Knight's Tale. In that film, it was only a gimmick. Here the songs -- ranging from music by Bowie, Madonna, McCartney, Sting and others -- really go with the flow. They're all love songs, and the film is all about love. But a dark look it is.
The story, which sneaks in under the wild musical radar and soon takes center stage, is about Christian falling for Satine and vice versa. But problems arise. For the villainous Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) also has eyes for the lovely dancer-courtesan. He agrees to finance a new production at Moulin Rouge in exchange for her charms. But Christian, who's writing the new show, and Satine, who's starring in it, are having a torrid affair, right under the jealous and treacherous Duke's nose.
The film ends up being about the fine line between love and obsession. But there's no love to be seen with the Duke. Satine is simply an object he must have. It's very hard, though, to figure out where the line is within the confused, innocent Christian. And remember, Satine is paid to make men think she loves them.
Don't look for any happy endings here; this is a tragedy. But it's a glorious, whimsical, gaudy, bold and brash one. The music -- despite using Elton John's "Your Song" too much -- is fabulous. Taking in the tumultuous atmosphere is a thrilling and unusual film experience. Walking back out into the real-life streets of our world at film's end is kind of a bummer.