“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,” declares the heartbroken writer Christian (Ewan McGregor), “is to love and be loved in return.” That simple, unabashedly romantic sentiment is at the heart of this audacious, euphoric and intoxicating film, which seeks to do nothing less than reinvent the movie musical.
When stripped to bare bones, Moulin Rouge is a love story between Christian, an idealistic Brit with a keen wit who arrives in 1899 Paris to take part in the bohemian artistic revolution, and Satine (Nicole Kidman), a performer at the titular club whose attentions and affection come with a steep price tag. The cool, manipulative (yet vulnerable) Satine lets her guard down with the earnest Christian, allowing herself to fall in love, with tragic consequences.
Director Baz Luhrmann is the ringleader of this particular circus, and what he encapsulates in this spectacular film is an ecstatic feeling: that of being swept away by a whirlwind of emotions too overwhelming to be controlled. He’s also trying to catch lightning in a bottle and present one zeitgeist moment to represent many others. This Moulin Rouge is also Studio 54 at its zenith, when all layers of Manhattan’s social strata rubbed against each other at the epicenter of cultural influence. (He captures it better than recent portrayals of that gilded disco-ball world.)
In fact, Luhrmann approaches Moulin Rouge as a truly postmodern musical. Not only does he freely mix eras — using late 20th century pop songs as the primary music — but he constantly tosses in multiple layers of references and actually uses the audience’s knowledge of the genre (not just movie musicals but their progeny, the music video) to tell the story. So when Satine performs “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” she not only calls up images of Marilyn Monroe but, with a snippet of “Material Girl,” Madonna doing MM. Another sequence uses the Police’s “Roxanne” in a remarkable tango number, one which demonstrates the violence inherent in that passionate dance and illustrates the immense jealousy Christian feels when Satine must fulfill a carnal contract with the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), the financier of the Moulin Rouge’s conversion from nightclub to legitimate theater.
This is another of Luhrmann’s grand themes: the conflict between art and commerce, love and money. On the one hand, Moulin Rouge owner and impresario Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is a doting father figure, yet he’s more than willing to sell Satine to further his ambitions. The batch of bohemians led by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) see their art as a mission to change the world, but are equally eager for commercial success. Only Christian sees love as the only thing worth having, and he pays a heavy price for his naïveté.
On the surface, Moulin Rouge resembles some past attempts to reignite the spark of the movie musical — little-seen but superb films such as Absolute Beginners and Pennies From Heaven — but it actually harks back to the golden age of Singin’ in the Rain. That 1952 film serves as a blueprint: It also uses already-existing music, focuses on a love story between a star and an unknown, and has as its basic structure a backstage musical where the characters are putting on a show.
But there’s a sunniness and easy charm to Singin’ in the Rain (where a happy ending is part of the contract with the audience) which Luhrmann eschews. His love of opera and its doomed unions permeates Moulin Rouge, and what Christian and Satine learn is Tennyson’s bitter truth: “’Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.”
Visit the Moulin Rouge official Web site at www.clubmoulinrouge.com.
Read Serena Donadoni's exclusive interview with production designer Catherine Martin, as well as Donadoni's feature, "Hot nights and lost loves," (5/29/01), which includes a discussion with Moulin Rouge's Australian filmmaker, Bazmark Luhrmann.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.