‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001) shouldn’t work — hyperactive camera moves, frenetic editing, a jukebox soundtrack, garish production design, that unnecessary exclamation mark in the title! — but, somehow, it not only works but does so with such power it’s legitimately overwhelming and almost impossible to describe. You don’t watch ‘Moulin Rouge!’ so much as let it have its way with you as it passionately flirts and seduces you before pinning you to your sofa and ravishing your brains out because Christ, this is one of the most sexually energetic movies I have ever seen (should I have worn a condom to watch this?)!
Turn of the century Paris and a young writer, Christian, mourns the death of his beloved, Satine. Turning his grief into art he proceeds to write the tale of their love and how it ended in tragedy. This is good because it means we know our hearts are going to be broken from the get-go so can relax and enjoy the ride. Besides, it’s not really about Christian and Satine’s love but about the act of consummation between art and audience which is why even the sad parts here are infused with such overwhelming bliss.
Luhrmann creates this rapturous elation with a masterful control of sound, vision, colour, editing and music. In short — cinema! It’s as though Luhrmann is whispering in our ears “Look! See what images and music together can do!” This mastery allows the film to maintain a truly relentless momentum that’s constantly courting the ecstatic. The opening twenty minutes or so are a masterclass in sustained euphoria to the point that by the time Nicole Kidman is singing Randy Crawford on top of a giant elephant with glowing blue eyes it feels inevitable. I mean, how could it NOT happen?
This sensation of delirious arousal is further augmented by some spectacular set and costume design (the entire film is dripping with reds so throbbing with lust they’re practically anatomical in nature!) and powered by a meticulously crafted soundtrack that delights in the naughtiness of plucking a well known love song out of the air with the full knowledge of what these songs do to us and all done with a massive, mischievous wink as our hearts explode.
Wow, I think ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is possibly perfection… or is it? You see, the film almost, and I stress ALMOST, sabotages itself at one point through this excess of orgasmic overload and I can locate that moment precisely. It’s here -
About halfway through Jim Broadbent’s Zidler visits Richard Roxburgh’s Duke to inform him that Satine will not be able to visit him that night. When the Duke demands to know why Zidler replies that Satine is in confession so that when she visits the Duke he will find her… “viiirrrgin.”
The groveling theatre owner and rapacious Duke then launch into what might be the greatest musical number of the 21st Century captured on film so far with the most outrageous, hilarious, filthy and jaw-dropping rendition of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ I have ever witnessed. It’s the way it comes out of nowhere that made me lose it so heavily as one minute we’re witnessing two men seedily discussing sordid sexual schemes only to then transform that all into a song and dance number so phenomenal I thought I was going to have an asthma attack from laughing so hard.
The problem is it’s so funny, SO comedically rapturous that it practically destroys the rest of the movie because, I mean, how can you possibly follow THAT!? I found it so hysterical that by the time Satine’s dying in her lover’s arms I was still crying with laughter from what I’d seen an hour previously. Obviously the film does recover and is a sustained pleasure until the final frame, which is a genuinely remarkable achievement and easily makes ‘Moulin Rouge!’ one of the most thrilling pieces of cinema you could wish for.
I was expecting touches of Renoir’s ‘French Cancan’ (1955) here and some of that is certainly present although the biggest influences seem to be Ophüls and Maupassant infused with pop music and Bollywood and that’s one hell of a bloody intoxicating concoction. Then again, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is one bloody intoxicating movie. I could get drunk on it forever.