In Paris at the turn of the last century, Cubist painter Georges Braque remarked that "art was made to disturb." If so, "Moulin Rouge!" certainly qualifies as an art film, because no movie disturbed critics and moviegoers more in 2001 than this Cubist-era film about a star cabaret courtesan and the starry-eyed young writer who pursues her.
This third installment in the so-called "Red Curtain Trilogy" from director Baz Luhrmann ("Strictly Ballroom," "Romeo + Juliet") had snobbish detractors sneering that it was little more than a little "Camille," a little "La Boheme," and (hmmmph, you could almost hear them muttering) a lot of MTV. Or else they complained that all those quick cuts, blurred motion shots and brilliant colors were hard on the eyes and gave them headaches. Seriously.
Others, though, agreed with co-star Ewan McGregor (who plays the young writer, Christian) that it was "a feast for the eyes." They dubbed "Moulin Rouge!" the new standard for movie musicals, an incredible one-of-a-kind film, and eight Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe win for Best Motion Picture--Musical or Comedy would seem to support that. But throughout its theatrical run, reviewers still faced off like Republicans and Democrats arguing over the budget, either maintaining that Moulin Rouge was one of the best movies of the year or arguing that it was one of the worst. How can that possibly be?
Well, ya' got trouble, my friends, if the sound of music you expect to hear some enchanted evening as you down a bloody mary and pop Moulin Rouge! into the DVD player is something you're wanting to measure against previous Hollywood musicals. Yes, there are plenty of allusions--to "The Sound of Music," Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, even to early MGM musicals with those overhead camera shots of bodies in kaleidoscopic routines and synchronized leg kicks--but there's really no comparison. Nor should MTV fans expect an extended music video, or else the Saccharine lines from well-known musicals and pop tunes coming from young Christian's mouth will seem more annoying than comic or artful. As viewers learn on a commentary track, Luhrmann's goal wasn't to reinvent the movie musical or to extend the music video genre, nor was it to realistically recreate the Parisian nightclub scene circa 1900. It was to try to create a film which would capture the feeling of what it must have been like to experience the infamous Parisian club Moulin Rouge at that time, to get a sense of the eccentric, electric, absinthe-imbibing atmosphere of the dancers and let-loose proper gentlemen who populated this nightly ritual of wild "rave" hedonism and manic naughtiness. "Camille" and "La Boheme" and scores of Hollywood musicals were an influence, but so were music videos, video games, the myth of Orpheus, and Warner Bros. cartoons.
The result is inventive, high energy, stylish, well-researched, well-written, well-cast, well-edited, well-costumed, well-choreographed, well-scored, and, well, it's almost hard to believe that Nicole Kidman and McGregor really did all their own singing, their voices are so strong and clear and blend so well together. Kidman shines as the sultry Satine, the Moulin Rouge headliner who's dying of tuberculosis. Don't get angry--just minutes into the film, viewers learn she dies, and so Christian and Satine's love story is told in flashback . . . flash every-which-way, for that matter, since music and story entwine like Tango partners engaged in a seemingly never-ending dance. Moulin's proprietor and ringmaster-emcee, Harold Zidler (wonderfully seedy and sweatily played by Jim Broadbent), tries to fund a new production by coaxing his star to sleep with a Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who'll put up the money if she does. Working another angle is the dwarfish painter Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who pulls Christian into his Bohemian world and, like the green fairy that appears when the in-crowd quaffs absinthe (voiced, oddly enough, by Ozzy Osbourne), he serves as a guide of sorts.
There's just enough story to make all of this high-concept, free-flowing sensory experience work. What's more, though the anachronisms were jarring in "Romeo + Juliet," Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce, director of photography Donald M. McAlpine, production designer Catherine Martin, and music score composer Craig Armstrong worked together to produce a world--a feeling of a world--that makes the singing, the dancing, the wild edits and visuals in this patchwork pastiche, and especially the modern tunes and lyrics (ranging from hip-hop and Gloria Estefan to Elton John and Patti LaBelle) seem seamlessly part of the 1900 Moulin Rouge experience. Luhrmann says that "Moulin Rouge!" was "meant to be high-concept comedy and high-concept tragedy," and because of its manic quasi-formlessness it's certainly a visual-emotional roller-coaster.
Viewers who approach the film without expectations and who let themselves go like those Moulin Rouge characters will find themselves really getting caught up in the film . . . and having a ball. You have to love the lavish costumes, opulent sets, and attention to detail. The huge elephant alongside Moulin Rouge which houses Satine's bedroom was modeled after an elephant-shaped nightclub/opium den that was next to the real Moulin Rouge in 1900. The dancers wore period corsets which made their routines grueling, to say the least, and many of the songs were actually sung while the dances were being performed . . . not studio-recorded and then lip-synched. Unheard of! And through the eyes of a poet who values "truth, beauty, freedom, and, above all, love," we do actually feel this film and its details as much as we see them. I can only wonder where a film like this was in the Sixties, because it's sensibility is very much in tune with that free-form, free-love era. But it's also truly tragicomic . . . like love itself often tends to be.
But despite all of the quick cuts, the strange camera angles, and the way that Luhrmann treats his video like a platter a D.J. is spinning, stopping it and doing a little rhhhhrrrrr-uh, rhhhhhrrr-uh for effect, the film still hinges on the acting, and Kidman, McGregor, Broadbent, and Roxburgh deliver performances that feed off of the bizarre energy and excess that drive the film. It's their film as much as it is Luhrmann's, and they have a ball with it.
This film was made for Blu-ray, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc doesn't disappoint. Colors aren't just bold and bright, they and everything bejeweled shimmers in the light, and the amount of detail is, in keeping with the content, pleasingly opulent--as wild and garish as the atmosphere. "Moulin Rouge!" is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, when the original theatrical aspect ratio was 2.39:1, so an effort was made to include every edge of the film that Luhrmann shot. There's no evidence of enhancement and no artifacts that I noticed, and so purists should approve. Plain old fans, meanwhile, will be blown away at how superior the Blu-ray is to the DVD. A sticker says that it was remastered and approved by Luhrmann, and I can see why he's happy.
To my mind, though the audio could have been better mixed, with the dialogue prioritized more than it was. The songs were loud and raucous, as they should be, but some of the dialogue was so whisper-quiet that even my young daughter, who, unlike her dad, hasn't suffered the effects of numerous rock concerts, couldn't understand what was being said. That forced us to toggle up and down to either tone down the big production numbers that were deafening if you had the volume high enough to hear what people were saying, or turn up the volume when the lovers where doing their whisper thing. It wasn't just the romantic moments, either. There were times when other characters center-speaker were drowned out by the orchestral orgies on the front main speakers. This audio soundtrack may well have been faithful to the theatrical presentation, for all I know, but theaters are occasional things; home theaters are every night occasions for many families, and too much exposure to loud soundtracks is a bad thing for little ears. For anyone's ears.
That said, this is a dynamic soundtrack that's as much of a feast for the ears as the video is for the eyes. Clarity, robustness, and dynamism abound.
Whatever commentaries were on previous DVD releases are not retained here. Instead, there's a "Spectacular Spectacular" picture-in-picture commentary track with Luhrmann, Martin, cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine, and co-writer Craig Pearce. The pop-ups include pre-production storyboards and sketches, along with other behind-the-scenes shots. When an icon appears you can click for a side trip, or you can wait and select from the bonus features menu. It's a decent commentary track, but because there were also great commentaries on the previously released DVD, fans will wish that Fox had issued this one as a Blu-ray + DVD combo.
The other bonus features are also in 1080p, even ones from the DVD release which pop up. "The Stars," "The Writers," "The Design," "The Dance," "The Cutting Room," "The Making of Moulin Rouge," "The Toulhouse Tonight Web Series," and a "Marketing" section full of promo stuff is all carried over from the DVD release but presented here in HD.
As for the new stuff, "From the Bazmark Vault" includes some primo stuff, including Kidman's voice test and early rehearsal footage, the two romantic stars' first dance together, and all kinds of behind-the-scenes shots that have an informal feel to them. Luhrmann also provides a very brief intro to the film, but it's not as good as the other features like "A Creative Adventure" (11 min.) or "The House of Iona" (7 min.) which zero in on the design and creative impulse that drives Luhrmann.
"Moulin Rouge!" is a movie that works hard to earn that exclamation point after it. It's that rare thing that movies often aspire to: a distinct, one-of-a-kind film that does what it sets out to do.