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Vive 'Moulin Rouge'!

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2001


    'Moulin Rouge' Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor sing up a storm in "Moulin Rouge."
(20th Century Fox)
When you're thinking "musical stars," chances are, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman aren't the first two actors that loom large in the brain.

But in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge," they're easy, heck, even charming, on the ear.

They continue the growing tradition of musicals (such as "Everyone Says I Love You"), in which people sing in their own, unapologetic voices, rather than with false Broadway brassiness. Of course, neither performer would be wise to pursue a professional singing career after this, but they acquit themselves wonderfully.

They're more than carried along, anyway, by Luhrmann's postmodern bohemian rhapsody of a musical. It's a brilliant tribute to many things: Paris's bohemian era, the evolution of pop music from Gilbert & Sullivan to Nirvana and musicals from "Gold Diggers of 1933" to Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark."

McGregor plays Christian, the archetypal penniless writer come to Gay Paree, circa 1899. Kidman – conspicuously cast against prim type – is Satine, the Moulin's biggest attraction and a successful courtesan.

Satine gets her shot at the big time (she wants to be a classy actress la Sarah Bernhardt) when club owner Zidler (Jim Broadbent) offers her services to a repressed, psychologically twisted financier, the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh). In turn, he agrees to finance Moulin's latest ambitious show.

Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), a club regular and social observer, helps Christian get a job writing songs for the show. He pleases everyone with his first idea, a song that begins with, "The hills are alive with the sound of music."

Christian falls in love with Satine, who mistakenly thinks he's the Duke. By the time the Duke rears his ugly head, Satine's already in love with Christian. While Satine rehearses for the show and keeps the Duke at bay, she meets surreptitiously with Christian.

Things are obviously going to get stickier.

McGregor's appealing as always. He's a great sport of an actor, who's always game for a new challenge. He makes a truly sweet-natured character. Kidman's cool screen presence warms up considerably. She'll never be hot to the touch, but she's likable enough here.

But the great star, of course, is behind the red curtain. That's Luhrmann, who also made the inspired "Strictly Ballroom" and "Romeo + Juliet." Working with music director Marius DeVries and many of his regular collaborators (including cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine and production manager/costume designer Catherine Martin), he has created a wonderful cutting-edge opera.

He nods at cinema itself with glimpses of silent movie irising techniques, a beaming man-in-the-moon (straight out of the turn-of-the-century films of Georges Melies), and salutations to great screen divas from Dietrich to Minnelli.

Musically, you can hear strains of almost everything, as the colorful bohos at the Moulin sing, dance and vamp. There's a cafe waltz based on Marc Bolan's "Children of the Revolution." Another song segues from Jule Styne and Leo Rubin's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" to Madonna's "Material Girl." And here's my personal showstopper: "El Tango de Roxanne," a darkly voiced rendition of Sting's ethereal pop song, replete with tango dancers and a scheme that might be called "sepulchral gloom and doom."

It's a wonderful postmodern hug of a movie, and never once do you not know you're watching a movie. But that's the point: Not to lose yourself in the movie, but to be brightly aware of your participation as a viewer. In Luhrmann's vision, that's what the movies are about.

"Moulin Rouge" (PG-13, 125 minutes) – Contains sexual shenanigans, some violence and absinthe drinking.


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