I’ll be honest about it straight away: I think Nicole Kidman is absolutely gorgeous and in Moulin Rouge! she is stunningly gorgeous. I used to have a stock phrase about someone being a combination of ‘Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabelle Huppert and the redhead from behind the Deli counter in Sainsburys’ (you should have seen her!) but after seeing Moulin Rouge! I reluctantly relegated Ms Pfeiffer in favour of Ms Kidman (although the phrase never scanned quite right after that, even though it syllabic metre didn’t change).
So you know where I’m coming from when I start to talk about Baz Luhrman’s 2002 spectacular, the only musical in my DVD collection, though it’s hard to think of this as a musical, even though there’s practically more singing than there is speaking. Made at the beginning of one century, it’s set at the end of the century-before-last, Paris, 1899, the Bohemian quarter of Montmartre, the infamous French cabaret theatre of the Moulin Rouge (the Red Windmill), birthplace of the Can-Can.
The story is simple. Penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) comes to Montmartre to join the Bohemians and to write. He is absorbed into writing a revue titled ‘Spectacular Spectacular’, to be sold to Harold Zigler (Jim Broadbent), manager of the theatre, which will star his leading performer, the courtesan, Satine (Kidman). By error, Christian gets a private aftershow meeting with Satine, who believes his to be the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) whom she has to seduce into financing the proposed show. The pair promptly fall in love.
To escape the Duke’s suspicions, Christian hastily outlines a spectacular musical set in India where a courtesan promised to a rich but evil Maharajah falls in love with a penniless sitar player (so not at all analogous then) and, in accordance with the dictates of romance, refuses the Maharajah for him. That is, until the jealous Nini drops a poison word in the Duke’s ear, after which he insists on the show ending in a more logical and realistic manner, i.e., she marries the rich guy who can provide her with lifelong luxury, comfort and wealth.
Since the Duke holds the deeds to the Moulin Rouge and can shut the theatre down in a flash, the satanic yet paternal Zigler persuades Satine to go to the Duke. For Christian’s protection, since the Duke will have him killed should she see the writer again, she convinces her love that she never cared for him, that she is, was and only ever will be the courtesan, interested only in the highest bidder.
A despairing Christian breaks into the theatre and disrupts the performance. He coldly castigates Satine on stage as a whore, flings money at her, to ‘pay’ for their time together and is about to leave when she starts singing their ‘secret’ song, a promise to one another of eternal love, which brings him back.
But the joy is momentary. Satine has tuberculosis and expires on stage in Christian’s arms. A year later, the despairing Christian writes the story, which is the framework for the film. The end.
If you were to ask me to come up with one word to succinctly describe Moulin Rouge! it would be overblown. If you were to allow me two, then I would say that it is gloriously overblown, deliberately, determinedly and uproariously so. The basic idea behind the film was to attempt to translate a Bollywood spectacular into Western terms and whilst I’m not familiar with Bollywood films myself (except in as they are the basis for Clive James’ excellent novel, The Silver Castle), Luhrman has made a bloody good job of it.
Everything is done to excess, a great, overtly and overly theatrical excess. There isn’t a moment of naturalism in the film’s near-two hours length and the staging, especially of fin-de-siecle Paris, shows no allegiance to physical reality, especially in its CGI depictions of the city ranging in a single swoop from the (newly-constructed) Eiffel Tower to the hill of Montmartre.
The performances are equally absurd, and all the more effective (as it always is) for the utterly straight manner in which the cast play their roles. There is not the least wink to the audience to say that, yes, we know this is a load of OTT guff, which would spoil things in an instant. This unreal world of fantastically heightened emotions is completely real to the people in it and they inhabit their parts perfectly.
Of course, the true act of genius behind the film is not just the ease and naturalness with which everybody breaks into song without the least warning, continually, continuously and over and over, which is just an exaggeration on the standard Hollywood musical trope, but the selection of the songs themselves. In order to make Christian look as if he was genuinely ahead of his time, all the songs are genuinely anachronistic, coming from the mid to late Twentieth century.
Indeed, apart from the silk stocking and lingerie-clad Kidman herself, that was what first attracted me to the film. We were on honeymoon on Madeira and I was randomly checking out TV channels when I found an extended scene being played in English. It was Christian and Satine’s first meeting, and it was highly-stylised and oddly attractive already even before I burst out laughing as Christian, in a tone of voice that suggested he was making up the words as he was going only, started quoting Elton John’s ‘Your Song’!
The anachronism was hilarious, but that just scratches the surface of Moulin Rouge! It’s stuffed full of things like that and some of the selections are gloriously off the wall. Some are used in big set-pieces, such as the one early on when the theatre opens, and a crowd of choreographed men in tuxedos and top hats advance on a host of the ‘dancers’, in frills, corsets and garters, the men singing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (here we are now, entertain us…) and the women ‘Lady Marmalade’ (voulez-vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?).
‘Like a Virgin’ also gets an absurd run-out, complete with dancing waiters, sung improbably by Jim Broadbent, who is awfully good in everything he’s asked to do. And there is an astonishing tango sequence, late in the film, that takes as its cue the Police’s ‘Roxanne’. But most of the others appear in snippets, often hurled around and mixed, fragments that are both decoration and architecture in the film’s pursuit of its ultimately tragic conclusion. And not just sung: the screenplay gleefully chucks in countless song-titles with Love in their title, as ordinary conversation.
The effect is hilarious, as songs that are well-known in one context or style come hurtling at you in a completely different context and an arrangement that rips up the original. And the effect is all the more prominent for having the actors conspicuously do their own singing. Kidman’s the only one with a halfway decent chance of holding her own in a ‘real’ musical, with a sweet, note-carrying voice that is nevertheless too thin, and McGregor’s good enough not to send you screaming out into the night if he ever did karaoke at your local pub, whilst Broadbent never hits bad notes, but these are not professional singers, and it is all part of the film’s atmosphere to allow the songs to be given this slightly raw performance, the only natural element in the entire film.
I love Moulin Rouge! for all these things I’ve said, but I would still hold it in high regard if it were instead a piece of crap that starred Nicole Kidman at this time and in those costumes. The film unashamedly exploits her beauty, with the added bonus of the fact that she really is a damned good actress, and knows exactly how far to go in sending up herself and everything she is doing. You may disagree with me as to how she looks, and I’m not saying that I have to mop up pools of drool after each watching, but I could sit and stare for a long time without noticing there’s a film going on around the lady if that film were rubbish.
A happy, funny, lovingly-created experience. My Sunday morning has been duly enhanced. So will yours be, if you watch this.