Searching for inspiration for this month’s review – and largely coming up empty – fate intervened and let me know that today (as I write this but not as you read this) was the 21st anniversary of the premiere of a movie that I stubbornly resisted when it came out and, when I got over myself, found it to be one of the greatest movies of all time. Perhaps surprisingly to some, I am referring to Moulin Rouge! (2001, dir. Baz Luhrmann).
Moulin Rouge! follows the love story of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer who comes to Paris to join the Bohemian movement, and Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan at the famed Moulin Rouge. Through an initial mistaken identity, he is able to meet her while she believes him to be a wealthy duke interested in financing her acting career. The actual Duke (a hilarious and utterly unique Richard Roxburgh) does want to become her patron, but his demands are that she be his as part of the trade brokered by the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (a magnificent Jim Broadbent). What we do not know at this point is that Satine is slowly dying, so we see the burgeoning romance burn with fiery passion but only for a brief time as the lovers work to avoid being discovered by the Duke.
What works so well in Moulin Rouge! is Luhrmann’s style. This is the third in his “Red Curtain Trilogy” (after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet), and where those movies do not quite push through the style, this one is enhanced by it. The style is punctuated by quick camera cuts and movements and intentionally anachronistic music choices. It should not make sense or work to have a 1900s Argentinian sing and dance a slow tango to “Roxanne” by The Police, but it absolutely makes sense and completely works.
The performances are mostly top notch. McGregor has a surprisingly strong voice and delivers the greatest performance of his career. Kidman has a weaker voice and looks bored when being sung to but delivers on the acting side enough that her overall performance is very good. The supporting cast is universally strong with Broadbent, Roxburgh, John Leguizamo, and a host of unknown actors serving their purpose and driving the story forward while being colorful and memorable. Broadbent, in particular, creates such an over-the-top character that you would think it would seem unbelievable, but it delivers at such a consistently high level that you cannot help but marvel at every word he says. His may be my favorite supporting performance in the entire decade.
This film may not be for everyone (with the aforementioned jumpy cinematography and cartoony world), but anyone with an open mind ready to suspend some disbelief and dive into a crazy world of unique characters will find a glorious pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. Put yourself into the right mindset knowing a fully immersive experience awaits you and you will enjoy it. My gift is my review, and this one’s for you.
FUN FACT – Moulin Rouge! was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but none of them was for director Baz Luhrmann. It is baffling to me as I am hard pressed to think of a film that well received that had a more profound impact from its director. There have been greater movies made and more personally evocative films as well, but the combination of the two here stands in a class by itself. For my money, Luhrmann not getting a nod for his direction, when so much of that direction is what makes everything else great, is one of the Academy’s biggest misses in recent memory.