Searching for actual love in ‘Moulin Rouge!’

Admittedly, I hold a love-hate relationship with Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! The first time I saw the Oscar-winning film in movie theaters, I was enthralled by the whimsy and creativity. Luhrman seemed to be more of a painter than a cinematic director. The story of the famed Parisian nightclub in 1899 was ready-made for glitzy dance numbers and plenty of can-can girls.

Then I watched it again, and I felt that Luhrman was obstructively in the way of his own creation. Every single second was dripping with excess directorial flourishes (the annoying spins of Jim Broadbent’s character were especially grating).

Over the years, I’ve grown to love the film more than hate it … but still. The central problem with Moulin Rouge! is that there is more telling than storytelling. Characters, namely Ewan McGregor’s Christian and Nicole Kidman’s Satine, speak constantly about the joys of love. They sing about love. They cry about love. They laugh about love. Love, love, love. A good drinking game would be to watch Moulin Rouge! and take a shot of absinthe (how appropriate!) every time a character says the dreaded “L” word.

The issue that I take with these exhortations is that they never seem genuine. Love is joyful and boundless, but love at first sight can be blind and troubling. In the film, there is no real striving for love. Christian and Satine fall quick and they fall hard. And, as with many romances, one of the two leads has a terminal illness at the beginning of the story (that would be Satine, with her bouts of bloody consumption).

Luhrman and his co-screenwriter, Craig Pearce, seem to embrace the cheesiness of the lyrics in the movie’s many songs. Utilizing the songbooks of Madonna, Elton John, David Bowie, Nirvana and Dolly Parton, Moulin Rouge! may take place at the turn of the last century, but its songs are all riffs from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. This makes for entertaining adaptations of modern pop songs, but, again, problems abound.

Love songs tend to be tongue-in-cheek corny (The Marshall Tucker Band even joked about this in their classic tune, “Heard it in a Love Song”). Movies, with a far longer duration, should strive for more meaning.

All the criticism aside, Moulin Rouge! is still an enjoyable film. The art direction and cinematography are stunning. The production values look as intricate as an opera. Luhrman often suffers from an embarrassment of riches, but no one is denying that his work is rich.

The performances are solid as well. McGregor is able to pull off a bright-eyed man learning the alcoholic and sexual leanings of Montmarte, the trendy section of Paris where the movie is set. Kidman is in fine form as well. She looks ravishing and is able to command attention by balancing power with frailty. Both can sing ably enough.

John Leguizamo, as the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, has some high points, as does Broadbent as the ringmaster of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler. Richard Roxburgh steals the show (and, yes, Moulin Rouge! feels more like a show than a movie) as the villainous Duke.

Taken together, the movie is a clever, corny love affair to the word “love,” in all of its many disguises. One only wishes there was more actual love on the screen. In this show-and-tell game, I’d much prefer the “show” than the “tell.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Moulin Rouge!

  • 2001

  • Directed by Baz Luhrman

  • Written by Luhrman and Craig Pearce

  • Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh

  • Running time: 127 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for sexual content

  • Bubble score: 3 out of 4

  • Click here to purchase Moulin Rouge! on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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