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Fin de siecle swoops and swirls

Review: 'Moulin Rouge' dazzling, electrifying

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "Moulin Rouge" is, quite simply, a spectacular reinvention of the movie musical.

The film is almost a living organism as it swirls, swoops, soars and sweeps across the screen in a kaleidoscope of color and movement, all framed in an operatic setting of sight and sound. It doesn't always work -- and at times things get too frantic and the editing becomes too fragmented -- but as a whole this ambitious project flies off the screen.

The director, Australian wunderkind Baz Luhrmann, is a visceral artist of the highest order. "Moulin Rouge" is the third of his so-called "Red Curtain" movies -- films that are highly theatrical with a reinterpretation of a familiar setting -- following "Strictly Ballroom" (1993), an allegorical look at the world of ballroom dance competition; and "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996), an MTV-style version of the classic love story set in present-day Miami Beach, complete with warring gangs wielding automatic weapons.

CNN's Paul Clinton calls 'Moulin Rouge' a monumental artistic achievement that swirls and swoops across the screen (May 31)

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Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor star in 'Moulin Rouge' (May 21)

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Now, with "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann has taken one of the 19th century's most infamous and decadent nightclubs, added a musical score featuring wildly reconfigured songs from throughout the 20th century, and thrown in a tragic love story. What emerges is a dazzling, electrifying event that transcends the screen. "Moulin Rouge" is a cinematic joyride that engages your eyes more than your heart, but it's one hell of a ride.

Musicals within musicals

Luhrmann surrounds himself with the same creative team for all of his projects. His wife, production and costume designer Catherine Martin is intrinsic to his visual style. Donald McAlpine is his long-time director of photography, and Jill Bilcock is his editor.

His co-writer, Craig Pearce, also has a longstanding relationship with the Filmmaker. The two have loosely based this film's story on the myth of Orpheus, in which a young poet descends into the underworld in search of ideal love. You can also throw in a little "Camille" (1937) and a smidgen of "42nd Street" (1933) into the pot.


Ewan McGregor plays Christian, the Orphean hero, and Nicole Kidman is Satine, the lover he seeks in the "underworld" of the "Moulin Rouge." But Satine is a courtesan, physically available to only the lucky few, and emotionally unobtainable. At one point she says to Christian, "I can't fall in love with anyone, I make men believe what they want to believe."

But what Satine does desire is stardom as an actress, not a courtesan. Enter the Duke, played by Richard Roxburgh. As lecherous as he is wealthy, the Duke has promised to build a theater in the Moulin Rouge and finance an original musical production in return for Satine's affections.

The film now becomes a musical within a musical. Christian, with his friend, artist Toulouse-Lautrec, (played by John Leguizamo), are commissioned to create the theatrical production. The result is a love story that parallels the emotional triangle between Christian, the Duke and Satine.

As the play's rehearsals gather steam, so does the affair between Satine and Christian. As the inevitable showdown with the Duke looms, Luhrmann ratchets up the raw energy, sexual tension, and emotional ante to a fever pitch. The characters have no choice but to sing out their love, hopes and frustrations until they shake the rafters.

Eclectic electricity

The music is eclectic to say the least. It includes Elton John's "Your Song," Sting's "Roxanne," Madonna's "Like A Virgin," and even an original composition, "Fool To Believe," by Luhrmann, Pierce and Marius De Vries and Craig Armstrong.

If a criticism is warranted, it's that Luhrmann rarely lets anyone sing a complete song. Melodies rule in this movie, with snatches of many songs interwoven together, and the frantic rhythms that work visually don't necessarily work emotionally with the music, since the quick pacing doesn't always allow the audience to connect with the emotions of a ballad.

Both Kidman and McGregor have excellent voices. The two also share a great chemistry, and McGregor, as a leading man, has never looked better. (For one thing, he manages to keep his clothes on in this film, a gesture for which we should all feel grateful.) From his work in several films, including "Trainspotting" (1996), he has also shown he is a talented actor; "Moulin Rouge" is no exception.

Kidman, in her best role since "To Die For" (1995), is smoldering and stunning as Satine. She moves with total confidence throughout the film. With her willowy figure and perfect posture, she also manages to wear Martin's stunning costumes instead of letting the clothes wear her -- no mean feat. Kidman seems to specialize in "ice queen" characters, but with Satine she allows herself to thaw, just a bit.

Jim Broadbent should also be singled out for his performance as the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler. Perhaps best known for his role in Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), Broadbent is the embodiment of decadence as he reigns over the nightly bedlam at the hottest place in the City of Lights.

"Moulin Rouge" stumbles, but it never falls. Luhrmann has bitten off a huge creative challenge, and for the most part succeeds.

"Moulin Rouge" opens nationwide on Friday, June 1, and is rated PG-13.

• Kidman film to open Cannes
March 20, 2001

• 'Moulin Rouge' - official site

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