Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:06 - Released 6/1/01

Many film critics (self included) often carp about the lack of authenticity in period movies — that is, about obvious anachronisms present in a story that is supposed to be set in another time. These gripes are justified when the problem is unintentional, when it is the result of ignorance or carelessness on the part of the filmmakers. It's different, however, when the juxtaposition of temporal elements is an intentional and integral part of the presentation. A recent example of this is Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, currently in theatres, which complements a medieval setting with classic '70s pop music. But a much more effective and enjoyable use of this technique is present in Baz Luhrmann's delightful Moulin Rouge, a wild and colorful sendup of big-budget musicals featuring the unlikely but surprisingly likable pairing of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. Anachronisms or no, this show is a knockout.

Luhrmann, who co-wrote the script along with regular writing partner Craig Pearce (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet), has achieved a masterpiece of creative anachronism, with a story set in 1899 and a soundtrack set about 75 to 100 years later. Although it is tempting to dwell on the producers' use of the music of Elton John, Madonna, David Bowie, etc., in this frilly period piece, that is only one aspect of the film's charm, co-existing in perfect harmony with the spectacular sets, make-up, cinematography, and powerful performances that abound during every minute of the film. McGregor, whom we have seen mainly playing comparatively low-key characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, bursts forth with energy to reveal the full length and breadth of his talent, belting out tunes and pegging every note on the emotional scale. Kidman similarly impresses, taking the considerable focal role in the musical-within-a-musical story and never faltering. Joining these two are a varied and powerful cast of supporting players, including Jim Broadbent, John Leguizamo, and Richard Roxburgh, all of whom put forth amazing and energetic performances that match the overall production value in every frame.

The story of Moulin Rouge involves a young writer named Christian (McGregor) who, having moved to Paris in 1899, falls in with a group of bohemians who desire to produce a musical play at the famous Moulin Rouge night club, a play which will incorporate their revolutionary ideals of "Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and (above all) Love." When Christian shows his talent for writing (by coining the phrase "The hills are alive with the sound of music"), he is accepted into the group, which includes a bespectacled dwarf named Toulouse Lautrec (Leguizamo); a narcoleptic Argentinian (Jacek Koman); the club's owner, Zidler (Broadbent); and the sexy and beautiful star Satine (Kidman), who works as a high-priced courtesan on the side. When a wealthy duke (Roxburgh) agrees to fund the musical, on the condition he have Satine as his own, the plans are put in motion, but Satine falls in love with Christian during the pre-production period. As rehearsals continue, this star-crossed love story is incorporated into the play, and the story (and the play) become increasingly complicated not only by this love triangle, but by Satine's secret illness.

It's hard to prioritize which elements I like most about this bizarre and altogether incredible production. While it is brimming with the energy of the cast, it is also absolutely gorgeous from a cinematic standpoint. The rich intricacies of the colorful and opulent sets are underscored by director Luhrmann's camera choices and the enchanting cinema by Donald McAlpine, incorporating surrealistic and quasi-magical effects into the film's stunning visual presentation. Meanwhile, the inventive use of varying film speeds and color saturations emphasize different aspects of the immensely colorful story, cutting quickly back and forth between the actors' subtle facial expressions to fit the mood of the scene, whether it be slapstick comedy, unbridled lust, or tragic romance. The costumes and make-up, moreover, are as full of color and vibrance as the sets, utilizing every texture of fabric and every color of the rainbow in practically every scene. Finally, there is the music, which will probably be the most talked-about aspect of the production. Songs by contemporary pop artists are woven together in an operatic tapestry that rivals the most intricate work done by the old master composers. Some may find it jarring to see a turn-of-the-century cast belting out Elton John's "Your Song" or Madonna's "Like A Virgin" as if they were composed by Verdi or Mozart, but I found it delightful and inventive.

If you enjoy the sumptuous movie musicals of old, and you're in the mood for something different, Moulin Rouge is not to be missed. But if you just like a romantic story and good music, or great performances by players you may not have considered capable of such exploits, or if you just love color and excitement, those elements are all there, too. In any case, this spectacular production cannot fail to impress — especially if you believe in Freedom, Beauty, Truth, and (above all) Love. *****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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