Part 3 in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, the 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! is the one that fits best in that thematic series since that is literally what the title means in French. There are indeed a lot of red curtains at the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris, but in Luhrmann’s version in addition to curtains there is a giant elephant, hundreds of dancing extras, and very anachronistic pop songs given the fact the film is set at the very beginning of the 20th century. This Moulin Rouge with an exclamation mark after all. The story is a tragic love story, but it is still a heck of a show.
I will be honest, I don’t have that vivid a memory of seeing the actual movie so much as seeing the music video with Pink, Christina Aguilera, Lil’Kim and Mya where they all dress in lingerie singing Lady Marmalade. I was around 15 years old at the time, so lets just say it made quite an impression especially given what the lyrics of that song mean. But it’s not just me; the video won a Grammy and has gotten over 100 million views on Vevo. Of course eventually I did get to watch the actual movie. This was during one of my last years living in Peru, so yet occasion of watching a movie in English with Spanish subtitles. No wonder I’ve grown multilingual over the years.
If Baz Luhrmann had wanted to be historically authentic the movie would have been in French making things simpler for me, but since the characters are singing excerpts from Smells Like Teen Spirit authenticity was clearly not on the agenda. Instead Luhrmann does what he does best, going full spectacle telling the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor) a writer seeking employment in the Montmarte district of Paris in the early 1900s. There he meets historical figure Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) who welcomes the help of a writer so he can finish his work on a show he wishes to sell to Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent) owner of the Moulin Rouge cabaret.
The seeds of a doomed love story are sown during a grand musical number involving star courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) as Zidler points her towards the venal but rich investor Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). Unfortunately amidst the confusion of the music and the many dancing patrons she looks in the wrong direction and mistakes Christian for the Duke. This leads to funny scenes as Satine takes Christian to her room thinking he is a rich man only to quickly backpedal once she realizes he is just a writer and the real Duke enters. Through improvisation and more singing, Satine and Christian convince him they were rehearsing for a show and get him to invest in turning the cabaret into a theatre for Lautrec’s big show.
The show must indeed go on, but of course there are many complications chief of which is Christian’s attraction for Satine and her desire to be more than a courtesan. The Duke suspects this and will have none of it, wanting Satine all for himself even if it means having Christian killed. There is no place for love in this cabaret, as underlined during the number El Tango de Roxanne.
Luhrmann had dealt with forbidden love in theatrical form before with Romeo + Juliet, however here everything from the costumes to the performances are a lot more showy despite the predictably dour ending. McGregor and Kidman work great as doomed lovers, Jim Broadbent is surprisingly energetic as Zidler during the Because We Can number, and the production design gives you something gorgeous to look at from the first to the last frame.
Then of course you have that soundtrack. In addition to that Lady Marmalade cover, the album is filled with a diverse roster of artists that includes David Bowie, Bono, Fatboy Slim, and some of the actors who quite successfully do their own singing. The story of Moulin Rouge! might a tad melodramatic, but nobody can accuse Baz Luhrmann of not being able to put on a fantastic show with great music.