Moulin Rouge

dir. Baz Luhrmann

Opens Fri June 1

Various Theaters

While there is much to dislike about the French, they did provide the world with Franch toast, Franch fries, and Franch's Mustard--for which we should be eternally grateful. And in turn-of-the-century Paris (the other century, not this one), the city was also birthplace to a ribald nightlife not seen again until the 1970s, when Mick Jagger and Donna Summer were harpooning their noses with coke spoons at Studio 54. The Parisian scene was literally bursting with the ideas, music, and the artistic wonderment of an age just beginning to see the possibilities of a shining new century. This turbulent, mistake-ridden world is the focus of Baz Luhrmann's newest cinematic endeavor, Moulin Rouge.

Named after Paris' hottest nightclub of the time--featuring burlesque-style dancers and upper-class hookers--Moulin Rouge tells the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a poet who escapes his oppressive, fat-headed father, to pursue a life of "bohemia," in Gay Paree. Obsessed with "truth, beauty, and above all else, LOVE!" Christian is recruited as a playwright by a boho theatrical troupe, headed by the diminutive Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). Painfully short on money, the troupe sends Christian to the Moulin Rouge to curry the favor (and funds) of Satine (Nicole Kidman), the club's hot-shit courtesan.

Three's Company-style complications ensue, and before you know it, Christian and Satine have fallen in dizzying, glorious LOVE! However, said "LOVE" takes a quick dip into the crapper when the villainous Duke refuses to support the troupe's artistic aspirations, unless he can also have the pleasure of porking the lovely Satine--for the rest of his LIFE!

Now, you may remember Baz Luhrmann as the director of the absolutely dreamy William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, with the similarly dreamy Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. His transformation of a dry, dusty text into a gun-slinging Latino gang-war love story was nothing short of amazing--unfortunately, Moulin Rouge does not fare nearly as well. The film is filled with clever contrivances: Dizzying choreography and sets, visual tips of the hat to the early cinematography of Vincent Whitman (A Trip to the Moon, 1914), a script loosely based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, and co-mingling modern songs by Madonna, Elton John, Nat King Cole and even Nirvana. All extremely clever ideas--however, it's these same contrivances that turn Moulin Rouge into an overwhelming visual mess.

Luhrmann uses frantic edits (none longer than 3 seconds in length) to recreate the heady excitement of Paris bursting at its artistic seams--heady all right, since my head was throbbing after 10 minutes of lightning cuts, and swooping camera work. These cinematic affectations can usually add a new level of interest to a film, especially if one is constructing a modern musical. However, the same old rules still apply: A good plot makes a good musical, not just the songs. And Moulin Rouge ain't got it.

The overlay of clever ideas builds an impenetrable emotional distance from the story that none of the actors can overcome (not even the wily work of Jim Broadbent as the manic impresario of the club). And while it may be momentarily amusing to witness 19th century cancan dancers hop around to a combo platter of "Lady Marmalade" and "Smells like Teen Spirit," none of this pushes the plot forward. Luhrmann could learn a lot from Bob Fosse's Cabaret--a thirty-year-old film that not only turns the musical format on its ear, but leaves the viewer with a lasting impression. Moulin Rouge is nothing but annoying flash, and the only impression it leaves is viewers scrambling through their medicine cabinets for the bottle of Aleve.