Baz Luhrmann revives the movie musical with Moulin Rouge, a strenuously post-modern take on the genre. The wispy story, assembled from shards of Camille and La Boheme, concerns a poet, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who adores courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), star of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. His poverty, her consumption and a rich rival (Richard Roxburgh) are some of the obstacles to his love.
Loud in every possible sense, the film outdoes the utmost excesses of Vincente Minnelli and Ken Russell combined. It's often visually gorgeous, but there is such a surfeit of self-conscious effects that they soon cancel one another out. Zooms, flash pans, fragmented editing, deafening sound effects combine with luridly stylized sets and costumes to whomp you over the head with dazzle. The conceits--Christian dreamily viewing Montmartre from his garret window; a jaw-droppingly fast tracking shot into the Moulin Rouge, etc.--are initially pretty, but their overuse renders them monotonous. Luhrmann uses an eclectic mix of pop tunes, period considerations be damned! Disco anthems like "Rhythm of the Night," "Lady Marmalade" and "Material Girl" push up against songs by Elton John, Sting, David Bowie and--his hubris is awesome--Luhrmann, himself. It's like being trapped with a major Attention Deficit Disorder victim in control of the TV remote or car radio. In the major romantic set-piece, the lovers actually recite song lyrics as dialogue ("Love lifts us up where we belong because I will always love you so don't leave me this way") in a way to make you roll your eyes to heaven and ask, "Where are you, Arthur Freed, now that we need you?" The "irony," if it can even be called that, is forced and, very likely, the groans of the MTV generation, at which this and Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet are so squarely aimed, will drown out even this earsplitting soundtrack. Typical of the heavy-handedness is his use of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which he puts into the mouths of a herd of tuxedoed nightclub rous, singing, "Here we are now, entertain us!" Luhrmann is not above pirating even himself, as this film shows much leftover evidence of his best, most sensible work, his updated Australian opera production of La Boheme.
It's a shame, because, in simpler circumstances, an effective film could have resulted. Kidman is a superb clotheshorse, imbuing Satine with high comedy, tremulous appeal and a breathily effective singing voice. When she makes her glittering entrance, descending from the ceiling, flashing silver sequins, she takes her place alongside the screen's great visual icons. McGregor is convincingly impassioned and has a lovely, husky voice, which works wonders on "Your Song." Jim Broadbent is forced to mug, but is fun in the best number, "The Pitch" (music by Offenbach). Roxburgh gives a repugnant performance as a repugnant character. John Leguizamo is a pure embarrassment as a lispingly fey Toulouse Lautrec. Like Fellini, Luhrmann has an unholy aesthetic fascination with dwarves. He has not so much reinvented the musical, as nuked it.