THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Moulin Rouge opens with an orchestra conductor in front of a large velvet curtain. The curtain opens and the 20th Century Fox logo plays on a screen behind him. The camera zooms into the screen, which now has black-and-white shots zooming through the streets of 1899 Paris. We eventually arrive at the famed Moulin Rouge club, which bursts forth in a dazzling display of color. The camera slams through the front doors to the club's interior, where Can-Can girls sing the Christina Aguilera/Li'l Kim/Pink/Mya version of "Lady Marmalade" while the male patrons belt out Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (specifically, the line "here we are now - entertain us"). Finally, Nicole Kidman drops from the ceiling, perched on a trapeze, to sing a medley of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Material Girl."

What an opener! The first 10 minutes of the movie pumped me so full of adrenaline that I could barely sit still (actually I couldn't - my foot was tapping to the music). It was clear that Moulin Rouge was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It assembles a lot of elements from different movie genres and musical styles, but it mixes them together in a way that is captivatingly unique.

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor can-can into each other's hearts in Moulin Rouge
Ewan McGregor plays Christian, an aspiring writer struggling to find inspiration in the Parisian night life. Specifically, he wants to write about love, although he admits to never having experienced it. Christian happens into an encounter with Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who needs help writing a show called "Spectacular, Spectacular" for the club's star singer Satine (Kidman), who also happens to be the most sought-after courtesan. The club manager, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), has made arrangements for Satine to meet the Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh) in the hopes that he will provide financial assistance to the production.

In the confusion of the club, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke. She quickly realizes her mistake, but not before he becomes smitten with her. Christian finds inspiration for his writing, while Satine is duly impressed with his work (which happens to be a thinly-disguised account of their own live triangle). The pair fall in love, much to the Duke's dismay. In fact, he threatens to kill Christian if the writer doesn't back off.

Moulin Rouge was directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann, who also did William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet a few years back. He clearly intends to reinvent the musical format by exaggerating traditional elements and adding contemporary music. The characters break out into songs written by the likes of Madonna and Elton John, whose "Your Song" is nicely repeated as a testament of Christian's love ("How wonderful life is, now you're in the world," he sings to her over and over.) Although the idea might sound jarring in relation to the time period, it actually serves as a simple reminder: the same things that inspire artists today have been inspiring them for centuries.

The look of the film is also magnificent, with everything getting a heightened feel. The long shots of Paris, for instance, look like those old 3-D postcards; the buildings don't occupy the same space so much as rest behind each other in layers. Lurmann uses computer imagery, sweeping camera movements, and various editing techniques to make his Paris feel like a fantasy world. Everything is done in an operatic style, to seem bigger than life.

The characters embrace "the bohemian ethic" of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. To me, the "love" part is the key to the movie. This is a story packed with romanticism, from the innocence of Christian's love for Satine to her ultimate need to betray Christian in order to save his life. During one of the musical numbers, McGregor (a surprisingly good singer, as is Kidman) compiles famous lines about love from different songs. "All you need is love! Love lifts us up where we belong!" he sings. There is no doubt that to these characters - and, obviously, to Luhrmann - that love is the best thing life has to offer.

To make this kind of approach work, you need a good cast and Moulin Rouge has one. McGregor and Kidman are superb together. Although there's lots of technical razzle-dazzle in the movie, they manage to bring real emotion to the love story. Through it all, you care about this couple and their relationship. I felt the joy of the romantic scenes, as well as the sorrow of the tragic moments. Roxburgh is also outstanding as the Duke; the actor wrings every last drop of seething contempt from the character. You will love to hate him.

Moulin Rouge is not your typical summer movie. It's not an action flick, although it has the frenetic pace of one. It's not a goofy comedy, yet it has moments of great humor (especially a rendition of "Like a Virgin" sung by Broadbent). It's not a sunny romance either; Luhrmann isn't afraid to tackle tough issues. Moulin Rouge may not be easily classifiable, but it is daring and artistic. It is also one of the best pictures of the year.

( out of four)

Moulin Rouge is rated PG-13 for sexual content. The running time is 2 hour and 8 minutes.
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