Romantic poet Christian arrives in Paris in 1899 to indulge his creative spirit. Like all good poets he boards in a back-street garret and is introduced to a ramshackle collective of bohemians desperately seeking a writer. Christian joins the collective, who take him to the Moulin Rouge club, where he falls in love with the courtesan Satine. Unfortunately, Satine has been promised to the Duke of Monroth by clubowner Harry Zidler in order to keep the club financed. As Christian and Satine court secretly, they concoct an elaborate, metaphorical show, Spectacular Spectacular, about a sitar player (Christian) who falls in love with a princess (Satine). The Duke becomes increasingly suspicious, threatening to withdraw funding, and Zidler warns the couple that they must end their relationship. The Duke rewrites the conclusion to Spectacular Spectacular, but when it is staged, Christian appears and reverts to the original storyline, uniting princess with sitar player. The Duke is enraged, and pulls out a gun mid-premiere. Satine collapses, and succumbs not to a bullet but to the tuberculosis she has secretly been nursing. Christian returns to his garret, broken and emotional; but inspired by his muse, he writes the story of Moulin Rouge.
Moulin Rouge! is the post-MTV movie par excellence, its dazzling, kaleidoscopic visuals part homage to the colourful eccentric imaginations of Toulouse Lautrec and Méliès, part a patchwork quilt of intertextual images from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna.
This is panto of the finest order: all your favourite songs strung around a fairy-tale story with fabulous performances by principal boy and girl, evil villain, and non-drag panto dame in the guise of the diminutive, deliciously lisping Toulouse. Baz Luhrmann has been credited with re-inventing the movie musical in this – the third instalment of his Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom , William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet , and Moulin Rouge!). Significantly, Luhrmann has surrounded himself with a core team of creatives whose combined input has provided an auteurist consistency of style: co-screenwriter Craig Pearce, with whom Luhrmann wrote all three screenplays, music producer Marion DeVries, who worked on the soundtrack of all three movies and as music director of Moulin Rouge!, and designer Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife), whose visual style was recognised with two Academy Awards. These collaborators are undoubtedly key, since it is the visual aesthetic, the use of music and the writing that are particularly innovative in Luhrmann’s work.
Nevertheless, Luhrmann’s trilogy leans heavily on existing material and Moulin Rouge! in particular is a key example of the sort of compilation show, catalogue show or jukebox musical ubiquitous in the theatre in shows like Return to the Forbidden Planet (1984), Mamma Mia (1999), or We Will Rock You (2002). In itself, this is nothing new, stemming from nineteenth century ‘burlesque’, a hugely popular form that pastiched contemporary culture or existing shows, and that flagged up this intention in titles like Faust Up-To-Date (1888), Carmen Up-To-Data (1890) and Cinder-Ellen Up-Too-Late (1891), three examples of the period produced at the Gaiety Theatre. To this extent, Moulin Rouge! simply follows a tradition, and one already exploited throughout the nineties in films like Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labours Lost (1999).
Nonetheless, there are many delightful moments, not least in the visual excellence of the Parisian underworld, the performances (of Jim Broadbent’s Zidler, John Leguizamo’s Toulouse, and Richard Roxburgh’s Duke in particular), and the clever reinterpretation of several well-chosen songs. ‘Sparkling Diamonds’ kicks off the high-octane energy of the Moulin Rouge, ‘Roxanne’ turns a sleazy Police track into an erotically charged Tango, and ‘The Show Must Go On’ finds its moment in a perfectly placed position in the score. The film’s ludicrous show-within-a-show is perfectly encapsulated in the ridiculous ‘Pitch’ number, and subsequently staged as a Bollywood stage epic, and the film’s central love interest is told through a variety of musical numbers: the newly written hit ‘Come What May’ and the jigsaw of song quotes rather clumsily stitched together in the ‘Elephant Love Medley’.
If there is a major flaw it is that the tragic ending is so indelibly sign-posted from the opening scene, with Christian weeping over his typewriter. This puts a sheen of self-indulgence over what otherwise promises to be a glorious pastiche of the romantic comedy.