by Fran Hoepfner
Look: Moulin Rouge! is a bad movie.
Listen: Moulin Rouge! has an amazing soundtrack.
Look: Moulin Rouge! is a melodramatic, campy love story about an English writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) and a French courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman) at the height of the Bohemian revolution in Paris. At its core, Moulin Rouge! is a run of the mill romance movie about a young, inexperienced young man wooed by what can be best described as a Manic Pixie Dream Courtesan.
Listen: Moulin Rouge! might not be the first jukebox musical, but it’s the definitive jukebox musical. It’s one of, if not the, most popular soundtracks of the 2000s. Not only does the music work perfectly within the context of the film, but several of the songs were hits in and of themselves. Director Baz Luhrmann and his team reworked classic Broadway, pop, and rock n’ roll songs in order to formulate one of the most complex and interesting arrangement of songs in a film.
Look: I loved Moulin Rouge! as a teenager. It checked all my boxes; I bought into all of the Bohemian ideals; I laughed at all the jokes; I cried through the entire second half. There were whole sections of the film that I had memorized. But it’s almost a painful experience to re-watch now. It’s so cheesy and overdone. I find almost all of the characters unlikable–and not in a good, anti-hero way–with the exception of Zidler (Jim Broadbent), who is funny, sympathetic, and has very good facial hair.
Listen: I’m making an assumption that everyone has seen Moulin Rouge! but can you remember when you were first struck by the film? The moment it all started to click for you? Watching Moulin Rouge! can feel a little bit like being trapped in an elevator with the circus. The scene that always hooked me, regardless of my age, was when Christian and his entourage of artists and painters and musicians go to the Moulin Rouge for the first time. Under the guidance of Toulouse-Lautrec (yes, that Toulouse-Lautrec, played by John Leguizamo), Christian's absinthe-driven trip to the Moulin Rouge is nothing short of an experience.
What follows is a mash-up of several songs: the pop version of “Lady Marmalade” by Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera, Mya, and Pink, “Children of the Revolution” led by Bono, Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer, and much of the male ensemble cast, and a rap version of the can-can called “Because We Can” by Fatboy Slim which also subs in verses from Broadbent’s Zidler. Sound overwhelming? It is. But it’s also a colorful mashup of pop and rock and rap, with can-can dancers and tuxedos. The sequence is incredible, and I would gladly watch two straight hours of just that.
As if that wasn’t enough, the film almost immediately segues into Satine’s feature performance–a medley featuring pieces of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” fromGentlemen Prefer Blondes and Madonna’s “Material Girl.” It’s simultaneously funny and beautiful to watch, all sparkles and glitter. Kidman owns the scene with such confidence. Never has a character been more extravagantly introduced.
Look: The love story is stupid. None of these characters act like real people.
Listen: if you don’t know all the words to “Elephant Love Medley,” I don’t even know who you are. In one of the film's most iconic scenes, Christian and Satine serenade each other in her apartment, located in the head of an elephant sculpture. (If, by chance, you haven’t seenMoulin Rouge!, just go with me on this one.) “Elephant Love Medley” directly references at least ten different songs, everything from “All You Need Is Love” (The Beatles) to “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” (KISS) to “One More Night” (Phil Collins). It’s a love song mash-up like none other. It should sound disjointed or overwhelming, but it works. It worksso well. The songs blend together like one beautiful, original creation. Parts are almost conversational, as Christian uses song lyrics to convince Satine to fall in love with him. (If only that worked in real life.)
The sequence is sentimental but altogether very romantic. Ewan McGregor is at his most swoon-worthy in the film. He’s doe-eyed and humble, hair hanging down in his face. Nicole Kidman is graceful and reserved; Satine is strong, almost too strong to fall in love. But the two challenge each other, pushing the other closer and closer to the edge of something bigger than the both of them.
Look: Can we talk about The Duke? The Duke doesn’t make any sense. Who is The Duke? He’s Christian’s rival for Satine’s affections. He’s financing every major project at the Moulin Rouge and he expects to be paid with a courtesan. What is he the Duke of? Who even knows. He’s the antagonist, though, and a somewhat lacking antagonist at that. He’s smarmy and effeminate; by the end of the film, he’s completely lost sight of what his goal is and fades almost entirely into the background. What’s the point of The Duke, other than to create conflict between two otherwise lacking characters?
Listen: if you don’t at least crack a smile during his rendition of “Like A Virgin,” then I don’t think you’re human.
Look: Moulin Rouge! is–
Listen: Stop. It’s time to talk about “Roxanne.”
In what can be safely argued is the most famous scene in Moulin Rouge!, a nameless Bohemian character–known only as the Narcoleptic Argentinean (Jacek Koman),—sings a cover of “Roxanne” (The Police) in attempts to explain Christian’s jealousy to him. Except it’s not just a cover of “Roxanne.” It’s “El Tango de Roxanne.” It’s a full-blown re-imagining. It’s everything a tango should be: dark, sexy, frightening, all-consuming. It’s the third act show-stopper. It takes up an entire ballroom, with row after row of young male dancers and Moulin Rouge prostitutes.
Christian is haunted, watching the Argentinian dance with another prostitute, trying to picture how his relationship with Satine will eventually crash and burn. “Jealousy,” the Argentinian snarls, “will drive you mad.” Christian runs from the tango. He leaves the theater, seeks out Satine, who, as it turns out, is with another man for the benefit of both their careers. The damage is done.
Look: It’s just that–
Listen: Here’s the thing. Moulin Rouge!, whether you like it or not, is a huge Bohemian undertaking; it’s a sloppy, over-the-top, fantastical mess of a film with a daring soundtrack. You can hate it (it’s possible that I hate it), but I have to respect it. I have to respect it because I’ve yet to put it on and turn it off. Even when I know it’s not good, I keep watching, endlessly entertained, because everything about it is deliberate. It’s as if Luhrmann literally threw everything he had into it, and what comes out may not be perfect, but it is everything. It’s all there. Freedom, beauty, truth, and love. I’ll be damned if Moulin Rouge! itself doesn’t represent all of those Bohemian ideals. I get a fair amount of joy making fun of Moulin Rouge!and laughing at everything it tries to be, but it’s not even half the amount of joy I feel when I watch parts of this film. It’s still a spectacle. It’s still worth marveling over. Listen, it’s worth a look.
Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.