[Deep Focus]

Say what you will about Moulin Rouge, there's no denying that the film is completely crazy. And I mean that in a good way.

At the very beginning of the film, the screen is filled by a pair of red curtains that are drawn aside to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo. A tiny figure is visible at the bottom of the screen, leading an unseen orchestra that blasts out the Fox overture. When that's finished, the little man goes completely manic, segueing furiously into the main title for the feature film. The attack of this electrified Toscanini mirrors that of director Baz Luhrmann, whose presence can be felt behind every scene, wrenching the camera this way and that and cross-cutting among multiple storylines like a hyperactive D.W. Griffith. Luhrmann has the editorial sensibility of a stick of TNT - he shreds his gorgeously realized images into tiny strips of celluloid, then splices them head-to-tail in frantic succession, in a bid to whip up a visual fricassee conveying life and energy.

Moulin Rouge is pure fluff -- or perhaps a better word is froth -- and that's the point. The film is shot in Panavision, with rich colors saturating the frame, and the director's lush aspirations match the delirious widescreen photography. One climactic moment, where the stage of the Moulin Rouge is filled to overflowing with sparkling costumes and love fills the air, is downright dazzling. Whether you buy its this-is-a-story-about-love declarations or not is beside the point; it's abundantly clear that the film believes in them, and enjoying the resultant nakedly emotional ride may be largely a matter of overcoming your own cynicism. At its best, Moulin Rouge is outsized fun with a casual disregard for sanity that makes it more satisfying than a similarly daring but very tightly wrapped Hollywood picture like, say, Memento. Also like Memento, it's a deeply flawed picture whose ambitions are provocative enough that it qualifies as a must-see.

Storywise, Luhrmann manages a solid reproduction of the kind of loony narrative that's served as an excuse for exhilarating musical numbers since the days of Astaire and Rogers. The pale Nicole Kidman, in a career-best performance, is the doomed, corseted Satine (think a lankier, more fragile variation on Greta Garbo's Camille) and the crooning Ewan McGregor her wannabe-lover (happily rekindling the light in his eyes that went dim in The Phantom Menace). Richard Roxburgh is the Duke, an unlovable aristocrat played as a variation on the Billy Zane role in Titanic, and Jim Broadbent is the earthy, mustachioed proprietor of the Moulin Rouge, who prostitutes not only his dancers but the club itself in a bid for respectability.

These characters are borrowed from other films, and Moulin Rouge itself is as much a tribute to past screen glories as it is the idiosyncratic creation it so clearly strives to be. Luhrmann's lavish reimagining of a decadent cancan revue feels secondhand by way of Cabaret, and his storybook vision of late 19th century Paris owes a debt not just to Melies but to latter-day visionaries including Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and, perhaps most directly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Luhrmann himself claims to have been inspired by Hindi musicals, though nothing on the screen here really captures the goofy cool of Bollywood. The film's "truth/freedom/beauty/love" naivete, voiced earnestly enough by McGregor, is charming but perhaps too insistent - it tugs at your pantleg like a terrier, all but daring you to give it a good kick.

Luhrmann's plan for making all this accessible to his target demographic has to do with the liberal use of latter-day pop tunes. His success with rather obvious song selections is mixed. Early on, as crowds of bourgeois spectators march into the club, they chant eerily, "Here we are now, entertain us." That's a witty moment, conflating the attitudes of the Parisian middleclass with those of bored U.S. teenagers, but otherwise the film expresses no interest at all in the world outside of the Moulin Rouge. Broadbent fares well with a nicely vulgar rendition of "Like a Virgin," and a performance of "Roxanne" provides a few moments of darkness that are otherwise banished from Montmartre. Too often, though, Luhrmann's film slips into a sedate adult-contempo mindset, quoting incessantly from "Your Song" and relying further on such overplayed chestnuts as "I Will Always Love You" and "Love Will Lift Us Up Where We Belong." (And even, good Christ, "The Sound of Music," which gives McGregor's character a poet's cred.)

What really frustrates me is the magnitude of Luhrmann's aesthetic transgressions. All too often, his movie is shot not just like a television commercial, but like a music video advertising a movie. The first big number, which medleys "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Material Girl," is breathtaking-but even so, is it necessary to cut the damn thing so quickly that we don't even get a good look at Kidman until it's over? Besides the runaway montage, Luhrmann relies heavily on the kind of editorial tricks that populate contemporary movie trailers-dropped frames that change the rhythms of a shot, or repetitive printing of frames that gives a strobing or flickering slow-motion effect. (Historically, this technique has been used sparingly for effect, or for the practical reason of slowing down an action when the filmmaker didn't have the foresight to shoot in actual slow motion.) Over and over again, the big musical set pieces almost, but not quite, burst right off the screen, hobbled by the dizzying montage.

The film benefits greatly from the performances of Kidman and McGregor, both of whom exude a playful, highly attractive naivete. Elsewhere, you're never given the opportunity to forget that there's a fiercely flamboyant intelligence, damn it, guiding all that the controlled chaos. When he directed Shakespeare, Luhrmann seemed to be struggling to keep pace with the rigors of an epic romance, deploying large-scale cinematic gimmickry in a laudable attempt not to give Romeo & Juliet a facelift, but to offer homage to its legacy. In the service of this love story, though, Luhrmann's desperate Sturm und Drang has less resonance. Art-directed, shot, scored and edited into tiny fragments, Moulin Rouge both thrives on and suffers from its own incredible artificiality.

Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Screened at the Clearview Ziegfeld, New York, NY

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer