“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
Baz Luhrmann’s third feature, following the superb Romeo + Juliet (1996), continues – and develops – the writer/director’s unique vision, transforming Paris of the 1900s into a hyperrealistic whirlwind of hedonism, colour and gaudy glitz. At the centre of the film is a story about love, but it’s a rather trite tale in comparison to the beautiful, timeless tragedy of Shakespeare – the similarly doomed romance between an impoverished bohemian writer (Ewan McGregor) and the glamorous “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman) benefits from the natural chemistry between the two stars but lacks any sense of originality. Instead, Luhrmann distracts us from the banality of the story with a constant barrage of spectacle – it feels like everything needs to be punctuated with exclamation marks. The costumes! The dancing! The theatre! The overacting! Yet although the frenetic pace and manic editing style does capture the overwhelming sense of dizzying debauchery, there is no time to pause and actually focus on what is being shown. Luhrmann further infuriates by constantly overusing extreme close-ups – the actors’ faces dominate the frame, and there’s barely a hint as to the undoubtedly impressive sets surrounding them.
It’s a shame, because the few brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Paris are beautiful – a Melies-inspired moon watches over the city, with the Eiffel Tower and the city’s sole hill, Mont Martre, looming on the skyline. At the foot of the hill is the Moulin Rouge, arguably the most famous cabaret club in Europe, if not the world. Its parties are legendary, its girls equally so, and Luhrmann revels in the spectacle of the place. This is the ultimate bohemian dream – a world in which “freedom, truth, beauty and love” rule supreme. Writer Christian’s life is turned upside down following his encounter with Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo; perhaps it’s just me who always feels somewhat uncomfortable at the frequency of “regular-sized” actors portraying dwarves, though he does a good job despite the strange fake legs) and the artist’s merry band of fellow bohemians. Together, they conspire to ensure their play, the ultimate bohemian artwork championing the aforementioned ideals, is put on at the Moulin Rouge. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Satine (Kidman) believes Christian is the Duke, a potential patron of the new theatre, and soon the star-crossed lovers are hiding their trysts while the villainous, nameless Duke (Richard Roxburgh in an impressively sleazy role, complete with spindly moustache) attempts to remain oblivious to the treachery under his nose.
It’s a messy plot, symptomatic of a generally messy film, though it does eventually calm down somewhat. The initial rendezvous, held in the magnificent giant elephant in which Satine lives, is a particularly cluttered, confused sequence; Kidman shrieks and pouts while characters pop up with comic sound effects, McGregor turns on the charm and lights the screen up with his irresistible smile, but it’s all too manic. All the pizazz, while undoubtedly working to create a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic, is far too distracting. The characters are entirely two dimensional, with no sense of depth or development, and the love story – the most important thing, as we are constantly reminded – fails to make any significant emotional impact as a result. It doesn’t help that its tragedy is reduced to a blood stain on the handkerchief of Satine, whose delicate coughs and sparkly beads of sweat on her brow are simply tiresome; the ending is inevitable, and particularly uninspired. Furthermore, the romance starts to grate – the two are so caught up in love that they barely even try to conceal this apparently “secret” love affair, despite knowing the potential damage they could cause, not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. Their selfishness and immaturity may be a sign of passion, but for anyone even remotely cynical, it’s just irritating and, quite frankly, rude.
There is a lot to praise, however, and it’s frustrating to see such talent and vision destroyed by excessive overuse and a lack of self-control on the part of the director. The music, continuing the distinctive style of Luhrmann, consists of a vast array of famous songs, reappropriated and combined in medleys. Some work better than others – the rendition of Roxanne by the Unconscious Argentinian (Jacek Koman) is wonderful, the first dance number of the Moulin Rouge less so. When the camera pauses long enough for us to actually see the choreography of the dance routines, they’re wonderfully evocative and, at times, quite powerful. The central performances of McGregor and Kidman fizz with energy, and McGregor has a beautiful tone to his voice – in fact, it is his star quality that really comes to the fore. Neither, however, quite match Jim Broadbent, who utterly steals the show as the Moulin Rouge’s owner Zidler – he is also the only character with even a hint of depth, and he is fantastic. Yet the film’s biggest flaw is Luhrmann himself, whose directorial style is manic; he shows a distinct lack of self-restraint, and the emotion of the story is compromised as a result (it’s perhaps for this reason that the Academy chose not to consider him for best director despite the film’s other nominations). Despite its apparent emphasis on the bohemian ideals, what really emerges is that there’s very little substance beneath the glitzy, crazed style.