If there was an ultimate and absolute antonym for “Moulin Rouge!” it would be the adjective “shy.” Hundreds of gorgeous costumes, lavish studio sets, a digitally reproduced city of Paris and an abrupt and cartoonish comedic style make this movie musical a one-of-a-kind spectacle.
From the very first musical mash-up number in the Moulin Rouge club that consists of around five songs, two of which are Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” you get a sense that “Moulin Rouge!” wants desperately to be different and ultimately unforgettable. The initial gut reaction to the film’s camp and genre- butchering is to dismiss it as forced and unnatural, but once the recycled albeit powerful love story takes over, the derring-do of Baz Luhrmann’s visually striking show becomes much more easily appreciate.
Despite a mix of songs that defies the historical context, “Moulin Rouge!” takes place in turn-of-the-century Paris in the “underground,” inspired by the paintings of Toulouse- Lautrec of the burlesque dancers, courtesans and Absinthe-drinkers. Christian (McGregor) is a hopeless romantic poet whose talent earns him a shot to convince the most famous dancer/performer/courtesan, Satine (Kidman), and her manager/pimp, Harold Zidler (Broadbent) at the city’s most famous club, the Moulin Rouge, to let him create the show that will turn Satine into a star. At the same time, a wealthy Duke (Roxburgh) is funding the show and one of his conditions is for Satine to be his.
“Moulin Rouge!” is also not shy about love or letting you know its themes are love and everything to do with love and that it’s all that matters in life. If not for Kidman’s wonderful performance as a morally conflicted woman dealing with masculine pressures and discovering love is indeed possible, one could make the case that the focal relationship between her and Christian around which the rest of the film blooms might never even begun to ripen.
Christian, after all, is a one-dimensional character seeing as he’s motivated only by Satine and true love — he has no other desires. So as Satine falls for him and his incredible ability to steal the material of famous songwriters decades after his lifetime and perform it with a soaring tenor, something must ground the film, and her very real issues, which are inspired by a combination of famous story lines including “La Boheme” and “La Traviata,” do the trick.
Then there’s Luhrmann’s (1996′s “Romeo + Juliet”) influences on the film. As it progresses, we begin to love his work here more and more. As the plot thickens and turns for the dramatic (and convincingly so despite so much early antics), his lightning-fast editing choices and lighting become even more effective and the musical numbers being fashioned out of a wide array of songs (like Sting’s “Roxanne” mixed with original tango music) become all the more impressive.
Sweeping zoom-ins of a city done all by computer and music numbers that are shot and choreographed in an all too showtune-y manner go from questionable choices to beautiful ones as Luhrmann’s twist on a classic love story archetypes matures before our eyes and the true spirit of his film becomes clearer. There are still some goofy elements that don’t fit, but the spontaneity of song and its often times non-traditional use is one of the biggest things to make sense and fit Luhrmann’s vision with time.
Despite only one original song in “Come What May,” (which should have been allowed to contend for an Oscar) it’s more the placement of the songs, the way they follow traditional musical theater rules for song placement — either setting the mood and foreshadowing the story or expounding on the characters’ inner feelings at appropriate times — makes them so effective.
Similar can be said of “Moulin Rouge!” on the whole: though there’s an inherent abruptness, randomness and even a faux quality to much of the film, it keeps the traditional love story at its core and everything else is merely growing bountifully from it. There’s a reason the same kinds of love stories get recycled in the theater and movies and simply get dressed up a different way and it’s because those stories work; they appeal to something human. So as flamboyant and absurd as this movie gets, it never goes wrong because it sticks to its universal storytelling ideas.