If you hate musicals, stay away. If you hate opera, run for your life. If you want to see the most intoxicating, mind-bending, dazzling, nonstop display of sheer cinematic invention in ages, then waste no time in getting to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!. This is The Goods. This is what filmmaking ought to be about and rarely is. This is the work of a filmmaker pushing the possibilities of film to their limits for the sheer joy of film. (It is also the work of a filmmaker who doesn’t have one eye on ancillary sales to video, because Moulin Rouge! demands to be seen on the big screen.) I admit I approached this film with a mixture of anticipation and dread. The trailer looked fascinating and the production materials sent out by Fox were tantalizing, but I’d intensely disliked Luhrmann’s previous film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. (I concede that may be largely owing to my very low Leonardo DiCaprio tolerance.) And I wasn’t immediately sold on Moulin Rouge! as it unfolded, either. Even now, I admit that the film is occasionally too cute for its own good, but its cumulative power more than makes up for this. Luhrmann’s daring and daunting use of film is the most breathtaking approach I have seen in 25 years. In fact, the film it most resembles is Ken Russell’s Lisztomania from 1975, another work that challenges the viewer and preconceived notions of film. Interestingly, both films take an allegorical approach to history — Russsell viewing Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner as pop stars of the 19th century and Luhrmann viewing the historical Moulin Rouge as the Studio 54 (and more) of its day. Both films are so awash in cinematic ideas that they might alienate some viewers from the onset. Luhrmann’s film, however, is simpler in the idea department — making it friendlier. However, it is Luhrmann’s simplicity of plot that is being used to criticize the film — a criticism that frankly misses the point entirely. Moulin Rouge! is very much an operatic work and goes straight to the Grand Opera tradition of a simple story decked out in spectacle and raw emotionalism. Plotwise, it’s really nothing more than a rethinking of Dumas’ La Dame Au Camelias (the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). What Luhrmann does within this plot is what is remarkable. It isn’t just that he makes it relevant to a modern audience by using contemporary songs. In fact, that isn’t exactly true, since the inclusion of songs like Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” Marc Bolan’s “Children of the Revolution,” The Police’s “Roxanne,” and Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” are anachronistic, but hardly modern in the “flavor of the week” sense. Moreover, he includes older pop songs and show tunes. In any case, the music is splendidly used — with “Roxanne” and “The Show Must Go On” being stand-outs. The choice of the latter is especially shrewd because of its double-whammy emotional impact, owing to its added resonance as one of Freddie Mercury’s last songs before his death from AIDS. All of this works because of Luhrmann’s driving approach and the startling brilliance of his willing cast. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor both possess surprisingly good singing voices, and McGregor in particular is unafraid to give a performance in which his emotions are as vulnerable as an exposed nerve. Jim Broadbent’s performance as Harold Zidler verges on genius and helps ground the film’s operatic nature. But in the end it’s the filmmaking that puts Moulin Rouge! over the top. Sure, Luhrmann uses all the modern tricks of the trade to create the world of his film, but he does so in a way that isn’t afraid of rough edges. Some of his most elaborate camerawork is anything but computer-controlled smooth, affording the film the genuine sense of being made by human beings rather than machines. It’s all big and bold and beautiful and brilliant — and with a recognizably human and moving center.
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