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Gay Potpourri: 'Moulin Rouge' Merrily Mixes Musical Metaphors

By Rita Kempley
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)
Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" is a magnificent mess of a postmodern musical, spinning like the windmill atop the notorious nightspot, swirling like the petticoats of the cancan girls, swaggering like the swells in top hats and tails.

Images explode from the screen like corks from champagne bottles, working girls flirt with Jeans, and the dance halls are alive with the sound of music. You want innovation, look no further than this exercise in pop rock with its kitsch choreography, stunning camerawork and spastic editing. You want beef with your bearnaise, forget about it.

Like "Dancer in the Dark," "The Knight's Tale" and his own version of "Romeo and Juliet," Luhrmann's latest is part of the New Rave. Music breaks the time barrier between present and past. The director also recycles songs and dance routines from classic movie musicals, the best of old Broadway and the bump and thrum of MTV. Whenever, wherever, it's all about shaking your booty.

Set in Montmartre in 1899, the story is a star-crossed romance reminiscent of "La Boheme" that centers on Christian (Ewan McGregor), a struggling young writer new to the bohemian Paris neighborhood. The welcome wagon arrives when a portly thespian falls through the ceiling of his cheap transient hotel. With the help of Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the unfortunate actor and his flaky colleagues are working on a new show for the Moulin Rouge. But they're not getting anywhere without a writer.

It's as if the gods themselves had a hand in the fortuitous catastrophe, which leads to the naive Christian's love affair with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the nightclub's headliner and the city's top courtesan. Satine will star in "Spectacular Spectacular," the splashy revue to be bankrolled by the smitten Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) in exchange for exclusive access to Satine's boudoir.

The unknowingly consumptive Satine, who was rescued from a whore's life on the streets by Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the club's lubricious impresario, initially resists Christian's suit. Though torn between her purse and heartstrings, Satine must also consider her colleagues' welfare lest the mustache-stroking duke close the show and foreclose on Zidler's property.

But the duke, a gullible fop, is no competition for the idealistic and persistent Christian. In the end, Satine risks everything for her true love. And as Christian assures her in a romantic rooftop medley, "All you need is love . . . love is all you need."

Such scenes have their charms. However, if you want tension or coherence with your tunes, go see "West Side Story," a legitimate marriage of book and lyrics. What you have here is a narrative often awkwardly contorted to suit the songs. Take Satine's excuse for not putting off the duke: She wants to feel "Like a Virgin." At first the duke doubts the courtesan, but then he's turned around by the cast's ripping rendition of the Madonna hit. With the exceptions of the endearing, magical duets between Christian and Satine, Luhrmann's lyrical narrative is a veritable cacophony of showstoppers. It seems he's never heard the term "dramatic silence."

Amid the ruckus, the lovers' interludes are all the more appreciated, even though Kidman and McGregor won't be mistaken for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra anytime soon. The leads do have pleasant voices, but they are neither powerful nor distinctive. This is especially a problem for Kidman, who makes her big entrance to "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." It's a competent performance, but diamonds aren't just any girl's best friend. Marilyn Monroe owns that number, and it is never, ever going to look better on anybody else – certainly not the lean, cool Kidman. The leading lady seems to have modeled Satine on Marlene Dietrich, sans the sexuality, danger and cigarette smoke. There's no denying her beauty or chutzpah, but unfortunately she lacks both mystery and vulnerability – must-haves for any aspiring male-magnet.

Luckily McGregor, the movie's most engaging performer, is convincing enough to sell the mutual attraction. The "Trainspotting" star is usually playing some kind of freak, and this is a nice stretch for him.

In any case, the appealing duo are all but upstaged by the grotesque caricatures of the supporting cast – particularly Leguizamo's Donald Duck of a Lautrec, Zidler's garishly rouged nightmare of an emcee and a rash of whorish, unattractive and mean-spirited chorines. Let's not even get into the matter of the black cross-dresser named Chocolat. Or the fact that "Moulin Rouge" isn't about anything, much less the contemplation of the bohemians' professed contemplation of truth, beauty and love.

Whatever. As Zidler puts it to the brokenhearted Satine, "The show must go on." And so it does – this one's got everything but Siegfried and Roy.

"Moulin Rouge" (118 minutes) is rated PG-13 for raunch.


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