Moulin Rouge is ostensibly set in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young bohemian wannabe, comes to Paris from England because of his crazy, avant-garde belief in the existence of "love," which he thinks of as a many-splendored thing that is all one needs because it makes the world go 'round. Or so his hilarious dialogue would have us believe. In Paris, he meets hyperactive dwarf Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who's played by hyperactive gnome John Leguizamo. Together, they conspire to perform the radical, anti-bourgeois action of putting on a big musical at the Moulin Rouge theater.
In order to implement their revolutionary plan, Christian must seduce the Moulin Rouge's top actress and courtesan, Satine. Satine is played by Nicole Kidman, whose acting is the only thing in this movie that could be called "lifeless." Of course, there's a zany mix-up of the type so often experienced by underground hipster music-hall artists, and Satine thinks she's being courted by the wealthy Duke of Monroth, who's all evil and rich and English-like. Hilarity and music ensue as Satine falls in love with Christian but must pretend to love the Duke so as to get money for the tacky, flashy, pop-song filled, anti-bourgeois musical.
All this is conveyed with such intensity, and with so many explosions, flashy costumes and really loud musical numbers that it quickly becomes the cinematic equivalent of having someone stick their fingers up your nose and drag you around the room. Director Baz Luhrman is so into overdoing everything that the whole film seems like a trailer. Well, like a trailer to one of the musical numbers at the Academy Awards.
Luhrman's not even content to do one song at a time, so each musical set-piece is a medley of contemporary pop hits. The pace gets so dizzying that some of the medleys switch songs every sentence. Imagine combining the worst of Elton John, Madonna, Nirvana, the Beatles, the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Patti Labelle and Hollywood versions of French can-can music into a single five-minute number. Now add a blaring orchestral backing, and you have an inkling of what's going on in Moulin Rouge.
But only an inkling, because you probably couldn't even begin to imagine the sets and costumes, which all look like a Las Vegas revue version of Willy Wonka. Everyone wears bright, over-decorated, often horrifyingly pink outfits that, in spite of being as loud as a nuclear explosion, still manage to blend into the even more over-decorated backgrounds.
Combine this with a swirling, ceaselessly moving camera, and edits that are so rapid I couldn't even count them (they exceeded one per second at times) and you'll begin to approach the concept of Moulin Rouge. It's beyond more-is-more; it's more like more-than-more-is-not-enough.
After an hour of squirming in my seat I finally got up to go to the bathroom. Let me tell you, compared to the film, the bathroom was fabulous. Cool, white porcelain, gently flowing faucets, soap dispensers. So tasteful and understated. I fully intended to go back and endure the rest of the film, but my legs refused to walk back into the madness. Next thing I knew I was on the street, staring at the pavement with intense fascination. It was neither moving nor singing. Quelle joie!
Several friends of mine said they actually enjoyed this film, but their natural body chemistry is more valium than methedrine. Anyone with an anxiety disorder or heart arrhythmia is well advised to stay away.
Fortuitously, before the film began there was an advertisement that said that it takes 1 million hours to make a feature-length film. Moulin Rouge seems to be an attempt to prove this by allowing you to see, hear and feel every second of those 1 million hours. Which, I guess, is the idea. Still, do we have to be so hyper-stimulated to enjoy ourselves? What level of psychological numbness is director Luhrman assuming in his audience?
It's as though Luhrman looked at Shakespeare's definition of life, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," and thought, "yeah, but more sound and fury, less signification."