Would-be young British writer (Christian) moves to Montmartre, Paris, at the turn of the last century (1899). He falls in with the ‘bohemian’ crowd, which include artitst Toulouse-Lautrec and composer Satie. These two want to put on a musical extravaganza and enlist Christian’s help in writing it. He is deputed to approach Zidler, the Moulin Rouge’s manager, to persuade him to fund the enterprise. Christian goes to the Moulin Rouge to talk to Zidler, who is in the process of setting up a meeting between the wealthy Duke of Worcester and Satine (the courtesan star of the Moulin Rouge). The Duke of Worcester is to be tapped to provide funding for Zidler’s next production. Much confusion ensues, and Christian ends up meeting Satine, who assumes he is the Duke, and starts to seduce him. The real Duke interrupts the seduction, but Satine manages to convince the Duke to fund the production, and agrees to be the star of the show
Christian and Satine use the rehearsals as an excuse to cover the depth of their burgeoning relationship – trying to keep it secret from the Duke who wants Satine for himself. Zidler has effectively sold her to the Duke in return for his investment in the Moulin Rouge and its new spectacle. Christian becomes jealous of the Duke’s eventual ownership of her. Meanwhile, Satine discovers that she is dying of consumption (tuberculosis), and attempts to ‘give up’ Christian ‘for his own sake’. The Duke discovers their mutual enthrallment and vows to have Christian killed unless he leaves Paris.
However, Christian suddenly appears on the stage during the opening night of the show. He sings his love of Satine out, who reciprocates in kind. The Duke leaves in disgust. As the curtain falls, Satine collapses and dies in Christian’s arms. Christian is left writing the story of their love.
This is a very visual musical – the constant spinning, fast inter-cutting, and noise, leave you exhausted by the end, and often bewildered as to what, exactly, is going on. It is a real shame that the principles have to sing their guts out and still can’t be properly heard through the cacophony which drowns out their best efforts. This makes it a bit tricky trying to figure out what is happening at times. Though what’s going on doesn’t really matter that much as the plot is paper thin anyway. And it has been ‘done’ before – most notably by Alexandre Dumas in ‘La Dame Aux Camellias’ and by Puccini with ‘La Bohème’. There are some superfluous scenes which could be excised as they don’t appear to have any bearing on the story. An example of this is the appearance of Kylie Minogue as ‘the Green Fairy’. The only purpose this appears to serve is to reference Julia Roberts’ appearance as Tinkerbell in ‘Hook’.
This episode is one of a number of film references. Those noted include ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Hook’, ‘Ziegfeld’s Follies’, ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘Gilda’, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, ‘The Seven Year Itch’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’. Not to mention the Busby Berkeley musicals of Hollywood’s golden era, and the BBC’s paeon to vaudeville: ‘The Good Old Days’. I’m sure there are others.
Nicole Kidman’s performance owes a lot to Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth (if ever there’s a biopic made of Hayworth, Kidman should be the prime candidate for the role). Richard Roxburgh’s Duke of Worcester owes a lot to Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham in ‘Robin, Prince of Thieves’, but isn’t as camp or as good. For some strange reason, McGregor bears a passing resemblence to Kenneth Branagh. Both Kidman and Ewan McGregor can sing, by the way, and her style is reminiscent of Monroe’s breathy little girl voice. And, of course, there’s the ‘diamond’ number referencing Monroe again, as well as reminding us that Satine is Zidler’s ‘little diamond’. Popular culture is well represented also, particularly by the use of songs and songtitles. Jim Broadbent is a revelation – rapping with the best, and giving a bizarre rendition of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’; but the most wonderful collision of culture comes with a tangoed version of the Police number: ‘Roxanne’. Sounds unlikely, I know, but its one of the best sequences of the film. Another high point is the use of Elton John’s classic ‘Your Song’. In the early part of the film Ewan McGregor gives a touching partial rendition of the song, which fits particularly well with the scene. However, this film tells us little about the can-can, or aboutbohemian life and its characters – the period the story is anchored in. The only nod to the era is the ‘look’ of the characters – they look exactly like those to be found in Toulouse-Lautrec’s art – originally used for advertising the Moulin Rouge and the can-can dancers. Really the film acts as spectacle and little else.
There are flaws in this film, it is true. But for sheer visual stimulation: What a spectacle!