This is a big overstuffed everything- and the kitchen sink mess of a movie. It is an ambitious, often gorgeous, occasionally brilliant mess. But for all its superficial abundance, there is an essential stinginess at its core. It teases the audience with glimpses of dazzling images and snippets of familiar songs but never gives either a chance to connect. It’s like one long coming attraction, without the payoff of a chance to relish the full version. There is more than enough for the eye, but nothing for the soul.
The story is supposed to be eternal, with echoes of classic themes from Orpheus to La Bohème (with references to everything from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “The Sound of Music,” Nirvana, Fellini, MTV, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, and even a love triangle with a gun climax right out of “Titanic”). Those may be shortcuts to pleasure and even amusement, but they don’t work when it comes time to making us care about what happens. The movie is busy to the point of hallucination, but it has so little time for its characters that it comes across more as melodrama, with young lovers menaced by a villain who all but twirls his moustache and ties her to the train tracks. The story tells us that it is supposed to be about love, but it tries so hard to be postmodern and ironic that the audience is left feeling as cold-hearted as the wicked Duke.
The movie opens brilliantly with a proscenium arch and as the curtain goes up we see the conductor and hear a song about “a very strange enchanted boy.” Christian (Ewan McGregor), a naive young poet, comes to Paris at the turn of the 20th Century and meets up with a group of Bohemian artists who want him to write a musical play for the star of a combination nightclub, dance hall, and brothel, a “kingdom of nighttime pleasures” called the Moulin Rouge. The star’s name is Satine (Nicole Kidman), and she and Christian fall in love, which is bad for business. The emcee of the show (Jim Broadbent as Ziglar) wants Satine to get the wealthy Duke to pay to transform the Moulin Rouge into a legitimate theater and back the first show. That means that she has to persuade the Duke that she is in love with him, and she has to sleep with him.
Satine wants stardom and she wants Christian. She does not have much time; she faints at the end of her big musical number, and she has been coughing up blood.
Christian learns that it is not as easy to be a Bohemian as he thought; Satine learns that acting like she loves many men is not as hard as acting like she does not love one. They both learn that the show is more real than they thought. The sitar (played by John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec) does tell the truth and love’s first kiss does wake the princess,
The highlight of the movie is the art direction. The sets and costumes are spectacular, and everything else is secondary at best. McGregor and Kidman use their undeniable star power to do as much to hold our attention as anyone could. Their singing voices are passable, but not arresting.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language (including double entendres) and sexual references and situations. The main character is a prostitute and the atmosphere is decadent. Christian and his friends drink absinthe, and have a hallucination.
Families who see this movie should look at some of the pictures by Toulouse-Lautrec of the real Moulin Rouge. They should talk about Satine’s comment that she had learned to think that she was only worth what someone would pay for her. How did being in love with Christian change that? Did the Bohemians really change the world around them? What do you think will happen to Christian? To the Duke?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Luhrman’s other films, “Strictly Ballroom” and “Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” which have his trademark visual flair and clever musical selections, and which also have better scripts.