It’s a dark night—so dark that the clouds seem to eat the stars. Yet, you stumble forward until you are in front of a scarlet windmill and a towering elephant. It’s a place where the bohemians revel in their ways of truth, beauty, freedom and love. Where men gaze upon the layers of frills and ruffles that dress the can-can dancers. You can hear the singing of “Sparkling Diamonds” and a heartfelt love ballad echoing throughout the night. Welcome to the glamorous Moulin Rouge!, a romantic drama that follows the poet Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Moulin Rouge courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) in their attempt to conceal their love from Satine’s suitor, the Duke (Richard Roxburgh). Directed and written by Baz Luhrmann, this jukebox musical exceeded expectations when it came to the production of movie musicals.
Those who have watched Moulin Rouge! fall into one of two groups; they either love it or hate it. Ever since I first watched this whimsical drama, I fell in love with the costumes and characters. But above all, this movie’s use of editing and cinematography is what makes it great. Jump cuts and fast panning shots are frequent throughout the first act. These shots feel psychedelic with their haphazard movement through velvet curtains, waves of ornate dresses, and drunk men. The cinematography captures the Moulin Rouge’s eccentricity, an aspect that contrasts with newcomer Christian’s lifestyle; the Moulin Rouge is truly unlike anything the aspiring poet from England has ever seen. During his arrival, we see the Moulin Rouge as Christian sees it: a flamboyant dreamland of vivid colors. The jarring cuts that capture his experience ease up as the film progresses and Christian gets used to the Moulin Rouge’s outlandishness, though the eccentricity does not lessen.
From important information being revealed by insignificant characters, to a mindless fear of the insolent Duke, the character’s decisions are, at times, less than rational. Coupled with abrupt shifts from serious scenes to frivolous moments—this movie seems like it can’t decide what it’s going for. What makes this work is the film’s self-awareness. Moulin Rouge! knows that its moments are ridiculous, highlighting this fact in its sets that are both elaborate and unconventional to the time period. An example of this is the giant golden elephant Satine calls her home. Can it truly get more bizarre than that? From Satine’s seduction scene to a tinker bell look-alike singing truth, beauty, freedom and love to men drunk on absinthe, it most definitely can. We understand that these moments—and most of the film—are not meant to be taken seriously. By embracing the idea that this movie is not grounded in reality, mainly through overdone sets and nonsensical scenes, Moulin Rouge! is able to pull off many things other films just couldn’t. This unabashed approach stays consistent throughout the film, even creeping into the sound and music.
The Moulin Rouge! soundtrack is truly fantastic. Though it is a jukebox musical, its medleys and mashups capture the motivations of the characters, and tie in key plot points. When Christian is at the Moulin Rouge, fast paced, pop-influenced music rushes to the scene, re-enforcing the Moulin Rouge’s other-worldliness to him. Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Madonna’s “Material Girl” get mashed up into the pop song “Sparkling Diamonds,” a dazzling performance for Satine which illustrates the disconnection she feels for her life and her profession. Kidman’s delivery of her lyrics draws parallels to the original source material of the songs while making it applicable to Satine’s character. Satine does not want to be a courtesan, so when she sings about material possessions, she directly references her profession as a connection not to anyone, but to things. Though the song is originally pop-infused, in the film it captures Satine’s turmoil over this lack of emotional connection with people in her life.
The most powerful moment of the film takes place during “El Tango de Roxanne,” a tango rendition of The Police’s “Roxanne,” which captures the entire emotional climate and plot progression of the film perfectly, in under five minutes. Jose Feliciano's husky vocals, coupled with McGregor’s torn vocals, capture the internal struggle of insecurity and fidelity as the Argentinian man dances with a courtesan, displaying that you can never love a courtesan. Intercut with scenes of Satine and the Duke’s courtship, this display of “El Tango de Roxanne” is staged beautifully with an intricate tango woven between the lyrics that adequately displays the tensions between Satine, Christian, and the Duke. It makes us feel torn with Christian and Satine, wanting their love to prevail, while also knowing what happens in the end simultaneously. Although it is a jukebox musical, relying heavily on already popular songs, it has two originals; “Lady Marmalade” and “Come What May.” According to Luhrman, in order to popularize cinematic musicals, he utilized popular music to give a nostalgic, familiar feel to the movie that would conjure a connection between the audiences and the film’s most touching moments.
With its jarring cuts, indecisive tone, and questionable character decisions, Moulin Rouge! can be a hard pill to swallow. But if you take it for what it is, the undeniably unique result of a reimagining of movie musicals, there are many aspects to love. This film is a well thought out reflection of happiness, and its costs, through a lens only attained by giving in to its outrageous concept. If you still can’t get behind Moulin Rouge! it's fine, but if you can, you’ll understand that this film is a masterpiece in the modern day film musical era, and will always be loved by many.