Moulin Rouge: a spectacle for sore eyes

Moulin Rouge is more Bollywood than Hollywood: a big, captivating, song-and-dance bonanza.

Allison Felus

Topics Politics

Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is so big and so captivating that you might need to lie down in a quiet room after watching it.

Luhrmann made the acclaimed Romeo + Juliet in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes, taking Shakespeare’s classic love story to the gang-riddled streets of modern-day Los Angeles. Similarly, Moulin Rouge is a vivid musical set in the tawdry streets of fin de siecle Paris, telling the story of a dance-hall actress (Nicole Kidman) who would far rather be working in serious theatre – but interspersed with modern pop music and dance routines.

The film’s anachronistic use of music is common knowledge – but it’s not as tongue-in-cheek as you might expect. Like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Moulin Rouge celebrates how popular music can shape our emotions and memories. And there’s an earnestness to the frivolity that might shock some people more than the biggest explosions and wildest car chases in other cinematic fare can.

Ewan McGregor’s rooftop seranade to Nicole Kidman sparkles with romantic sincerity. Even though his old-fashioned wooing borrows lyrics from U2, The Beatles and Elton John, there’s no High Fidelity-esque music snobbery here. His song is our song.

But as wonderful as McGregor and Kidman are in this scene, the real kicker is the opera-singing Man in the Moon who hits the high note at the end of the medley. As a reference to early film special effects pioneer Georges Méliès’ famous short film A Trip to the Moon, it could bring tears to your eyes as much as any of the mushy love stuff.

Yet one thing kept nagging at me, even after a second viewing: the Nicole Kidman character’s desire to ‘fly away’ from the Moulin Rouge. She longs to leave behind the tawdry dance hall and become a real actress – a familiar Hollywood story. But it seems a bit false in a movie that thrives on all manner of ‘low’ culture. Why couldn’t she revel in the cheesy entertainment as much as I was?

One of the most significant things about Moulin Rouge is how it brings Bollywood sensibilities to Hollywood audiences. Forget everything you’ve heard about this film resuscitating the traditional Hollywood musical – Moulin Rouge actually has more in common with Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, with its florid emotionalism and sense of spectacle.

The anything-goes tone, the bare bones plot, the spontaneous eruptions of song and dance numbers come straight out of popular Hindi cinema. And that they’re blended together with fin de siecle Paris and contemporary music so seamlessly surely proves that globalisation isn’t just about Starbucks and McDonald’s taking over the world. This film shows that it’s also a way to combine ideas and traditions and bring us all a little closer together.

Bravo, Baz, bravo.

Moulin Rouge is released in the UK on 7 September 2001. See the website Moulin Rouge.

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