A glob of flamboyant, self-indulgent kitsch with pretensions to grandeur, Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant, anachronistic period musical is big, garish,loud and dumb as a box of Rockettes–less a coherent movie than a visual and aural assault on the senses. “Moulin Rouge” is set in the Paris of 1899, but it employs a variety of pop tunes, largely of the easy rock variety, to tell its crushingly sentimental story of a consumption-ridden chanteuse/courtesan at the titular establishment who falls for a penniless but talented writer, enraging the lustful nobleman who’s her chief financial backer and wants her entirely to himself. The shades of “Camille,” “La traviata” and “La boheme” hover over the picture like avenging angels, since it often plays more like a Monty Python takeoff than a homage; a cinematic blitzkrieg, it seems written for people with an IQ under ten, and is shot and edited with such breakneck ferocity that it could be properly appreciated only by viewers with an attention span of under a second.
Nicole Kidman plays the singer-prostitute Satine, who longs to be a great actress. Her boss and manager Zidler (Jim Broadbent) has enticed an arrogant duke (Richard Roxburgh) to pay for a big musical extravanza as a showcase for her by promising him her undivided sexual attention, but she mistakes callow author Christian (Ewan McGregor), who’s just fallen in with Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and his band of merry bohemians, for the nobleman; and no sooner do they get together than they’re both hopelessly in love. The remainder of the picture finds the two surreptitiously continuing their affair under the nose of the sneering duke as they collaborate on the project he’s funding. Of course since the poor girl periodically faints and coughs up blood, it goes without saying that things can’t end up entirely happily.
Luhrmann has elected to tell this simple-minded tale in a quasi-operatic fashion, apparently believing that the idea of an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style show blown up to elephantine proportions and staged like a runaway tornado will be irresistible. He’s wrong. “Moulin Rouge” is wearyingly overstuffed from the very first frame, with virtually every scene chopped into tiny fragments by hysterically frenzied editing and disfigured by oppressive closeups. The idea of narrating the piece through pop songs is a poor variation of the “Pennies from Heaven” formula, and gives rise to some sequences that are literally jaw-droppingly awful. I thought that we had reached the appalling nadir with a grotesque version of “Like a Virgin” sung by Broadbent, accompanied by a Busby Berkeley (or is it “Hello Dolly”?) chorus of prancing waiters, but no such luck: the final act tops even that enormity with a gruesome massed Apache dance to the strains of “Roxanne” intercut with the duke’s attempted rape of Satine, followed by a concluding production number (a series of excerpts from the show the group’s premiering, interrupted by the melodramatic windup of the love triangle plot) that is so astoundingly ugly that one’s tempted to avert his eyes (it’s capped, moreover, by an crane shot ascending through the backstage area that’s cribbed from “Citizen Kane,” of all things). All of this is supposed to be taken, of course, as camp raised to a transcendent level and, as such,to make you swoon in wonderment at its lushness and romance, but in reality it exhibits all the inventiveness of a wildly overwrought sophomore-class skit in a college revue extended to a positively painful two hours.
The performers labor all too strenuously to meet Luhrmann’s demands, but to no avail. Despite occasionally coughing up a few discreet drops of red, Kidman remains a bloodless heroine–a pale alabaster statue of surpassing beauty who engenders little emotional response. McGregor is handsome and reveals a strong singing voice, but he suffers all too melodramatically; he resembles a tenor version of a heroine in a Fanny Hurst weepie. Leguizamo is a maniacal and unfunny troll, while Broadbent mugs and sweats so profusely that he seems on the verge of cardiac arrest. As the snarling duke, Roxburgh could be auditioning for the role of Snidely Whiplash. At Luhrmann’s urging, everybody else in the large, well-attired cast bugs out their eyes and grimaces like animated gargoyles.
Presumably one could get some enjoyment out of “Moulin Rouge” by reveling in the stunning art direction with its rich reds and blues, the cascading streams of music veering from Offenbach to The Beatles, the exquisite lighting and lustrous decor–and some people will probably get a chuckle just from recognizing fragments of long-cherished lyrics and melodies plugged into such an unlikely setting. But by all means, if you go, leave your brain at the door (and take a couple of airsick pills to lessen the possibility of distress at the constant bombardment of images). Better yet, just slip on a recording of “Traviata.” You’ll get better music and better singing, and avoid Luhrmann’s visual bludgeoning. The fellow undoubtedly has ambition; now all he needs is some taste to go along with it.