Moulin Rouge, taking its name from the fin de siecle Paris nightclub that popularized the cancan and absinthe-soaked decadence, is a gorgeous folly. Aussie director Baz Luhrmann, who filtered the Bard through Miami, disco divas and Leo in Romeo and Juliet, is so drunk on his own daring that you go along until overkill blows your fuses. I’m still reeling from the spectacle of Ewan McGregor, who plays a penniless poet named Christian, crooning, “The hills are alive with the sound of music” to dwarfish artist Toulouse-Lautrec (a lisping, mannered John Leguizamo). Then there’s Satine (Nicole Kidman), the courtesan loved by Christian, warbling Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Madonna’s “Material Girl” while perched on a flying trapeze. And how about that elephantine love medley — sung by Kidman and McGregor with an enthusiasm that belies their barely serviceable voices — which references, among other tunes, “All You Need Is Love,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Silly Love Songs” and “Up Where We Belong,” the Oscar-winning love theme from 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. Surely Paris in 1899 never sounded like this.
Which is, of course, the point. Luhrmann is using the music of one century to comment on another. Fatboy Slim provides a techo cancan; Beck reinvents David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs”; Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink cover “Lady Marmalade”; and, well, you get the deconstructionist drift. If you’ve ever longed to see Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” done as a pimp dance for aging white men, this is your movie. Luhrmann’s technique is flamboyantly operatic. A curtain rises on the action as Christian evokes the myth of Orpheus (“The woman I loved is dead”) and Bowie is heard singing “Nature Boy,” a Nat “King” Cole hit of the 1950s: “There was a boy/A very strange, enchanted boy. . . .”
In flashback, we see the naive Christian arrive in Paris and fall hard for the seen-it-all Satine. Kidman’s cool beauty and McGregor’s unbridled emotionalism blend nicely. But Satine has promised Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the owner of the Moulin Rouge, that she will become the sex toy of the duke (Richard Roxburgh, charmless beyond the call of villain duty), who in turn will save the club with a cash transfusion. Satine needs another kind of transfusion — though she is transformed by Christian’s love, it can’t cure her nasty cough. It’s the eternal romantic triangle: boy, girl and death.
Luhrmann doesn’t merely juggle archetypes — he explodes them to discover what the suckers are made of. You can see every cent of the film’s $52.5 million budget onscreen. Luhrmann creates visual miracles with his wife, production designer Catherine Martin, but excess is his Achilles’ heel. The grand becomes grandiose and the lyrical turns bombastic. Does Luhrmann think that hammering us with power-ballad cliches (“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love/And be loved in return”) will make us feel the emotions that once grounded them? I left Moulin Rouge feeling something, all right: I felt mauled.