MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)

  • Director: Baz Luhrmann
  • Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
  • Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Jacek Koman, and Caroline O’Connor 
  • Accolades: 2016 BBC Top 100 Films of the 21st Century (#53), shown at 2001 Cannes Film Festival, 2 Oscars (Best Art Direction, Best Costumes), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actress – Nicole Kidman, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, and Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

As our more loyal readers may be aware, here at Movie Valhalla we only cover movies that are at least 20 years old, since I figure there is plenty of coverage of new movies anyway, and also I think I often need a long time to actually figure out my relationship to a particular film. As such, it has become a long-standing tradition, since I made it up last year, to do a New Year’s series of newly 20-year-old movies. It has been pointed out by some other humans to whom I am married that, in fact, movies become 20 years old when earlier than the following New Year’s, but that would involve me looking up all the movie’s specific release dates). Anyway, welcome to this year’s series, 2001: A Film Odyssey, which will feature 10 great movies from the far-off future year of 2001.

For me, 2001 is, if not the very definitive year of movies for my life, certainly up there. I fully admit that this might be at least as much because of timing as anything else (this was my sophomore to junior years of high school), meaning not just that I saw several of these movies in a theater at an impressionable age but also that these were prime movies available to rent (Blockbuster was still a thing) when I was in college, and what was I going to do, study? I mean come on. But I also think it was a particularly good movie year in general, with a far higher number of releases that have stood the test of time to become part of the “canon” here in 2022 (jeez louise) than, say, either of the years before and after.

We will start, then, with Moulin Rouge!, which to me feels like the greatest film ever made in an alternate, even crazier universe. If you have not watched this movie, you are likely unprepared for the heightened, even manic level of the filmmaking here. We have done a handful of movies here on the site with exclamation points in the title, but few films earn their exclamation point more than Moulin Rouge! It is today seen as part of (and sometimes sold as part of a box-set with) director Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy,” which also includes Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. These movies do not share any sort of overarching narrative or anything, but are more connected through their theatrical qualities and style of presentation than anything else. The first of these is based on Luhrmann’s own stage play (about the very theatrical world of Ballroom Dancing), while the second is a very emotionally over-the-top modernization of one of Shakespeare’s more over-the-top plays, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. Yet Moulin Rouge! is perhaps the most theatrical of the three, starting with the 20th Century Fox music being played by an on-screen orchestra led by a wildly gesturing conductor. 

The movie repurposes a long series of modern rock and pop songs (often changing their words to fit the situation in the movie), not just in the usual “jukebox musical” format but in a much more transformational way. Luhrmann stated that his goal was to allow a modern viewer, for whom can-can music might not be the thrill it was to their great-great-grandparents, to really experience the same heady excitement that a neophyte brought into this world of the Moulin Rouge in circa-1900 Paris would have experienced. For me, at least, the movie fully succeeds in this seemingly very difficult task, and let’s say that if it doesn’t it’s not for lack of trying. Luhrmann is never afraid to go that extra bit further. At the movie’s climax, a gun is knocked out of the villain’s hand and goes flying through the air, out of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, and bounces off the clearly-a-model version of the Eiffel Tower with a clink. This moment seems like sort of the culmination of everything else going on in this movie.

Ewan McGregor stars as Christian, a love-obsessed poet from Britain who arrives in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris at the height of the “Bohemian” movement, which this movie vaguely describes as being about “beauty,” “truth,” and various other adjectives. He is befriended by the actual historical painter Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who really was a dwarf, as this movie puts it, and who really did hang out drinking absinthe and painting the dancers at the Moulin Rouge nightclub, though I doubt possessed quite the insane, unplaceable accent evinced by Leguizamo here. Toulouse-Lautrec and his friends hire Christian on the basis of his poetry (they are blown away by his line, “The hills are alive with the sound of music”) to write their new stage show, which they plan to pitch to the owner of the nearby Moulin Rouge, the most happening, crazy spot in town. They succeed when, mostly by accident, the Moulin Rouge’s star dancer/courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) mistakenly believes Christian to actually be the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who she is supposed to seduce to secure funding in order to turn the Rouge into a somewhat-more-respectable theater where she can fulfill her dream of becoming “a real actress.”

Of course, Satine and Christian fall hard for each other in the sort of way that only happens in movies, which is the sort of thing this movie is very unapologetic about, but must hide their love from the Duke so that the show can go on. This leads to a great deal of hijinks, angst, and musical numbers before the (pretty much literally) operatic conclusion. Luhrmann apparently first conceived the movie while directing a production of La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House, and the plot of this movie is apparently at least vaguely analogous to that opera. Like an opera in the 1800s might have, Luhrmann uses the music here as a short of emotional shorthand. In many cases, the songs are not simply covers of pop songs but entire montages that take whatever lines they want from whatever songs they can think of to communicate what they need to. Consider the following relatively brief montage (on top of the giant elephant thing in the middle of the Moulin Rouge, apparently also at least somewhat based on a real thing) when McGregor’s Christian declares his love for Kidman’s Satine.

In my day job I am an attorney, sometimes working on copyright law, and there is a concept in copyright law of a “transformative use,” where someone is allowed to use someone else’s copyrighted work because they completely transform it into something of their own. I can’t actually think of a clearer example of “transformative use” than this movie (note: that is not a legal opinion). In fact, Luhrmann and his producers tracked down and got the rights to every song used in this movie, a process that took well over two years just on its own. He ended up having to leave out songs by the Rolling Stones and Cat Stevens after they wouldn’t give him the rights, the latter on “religious grounds.” In the end, the 2 hour movie somehow includes bits of upwards of 60 pop songs, along with the original track “Come What May” (added in an apparent bid for an Original Song Oscar, though it wasn’t actually nominated in the end). The Rolling Stones, for their part, would reconsider after seeing the success of the movie, and the currently-running Broadway show includes the Duke introducing himself with “Sympathy for the Devil.” 

With average performances, this movie could easily have remained sort of a fascinating curiosity, but the actors are universally in sync with the out-there material. Nicole Kidman completely nails the seemingly impossible task of playing “the ultimate seductress with a heart of gold,” and her character’s image from his movie has reached icon status. She would be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Halle Berry’s much more “realistic” turn in Monster’s Ball. Kidman went on to win the next year for playing the author Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which is a complete 180-degree turn from this role, down to famously wearing a prosthetic nose in order to make herself, well, uglier. I would argue that the movie’s MVP, however, is the great English actor Jim Broadbent, as the Moulin Rouge’s impressively-mustachioed owner, Harold Zidler. Broadbent exudes menace or extreme silliness with equal panache, mostly while wearing ridiculous get-ups. He also pulls off perhaps the single biggest-ask of many of the musical numbers, too, a version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” 

I am kind of in love with this movie, and even 20 years and numerous “jukebox musicals” later there still hasn’t been anything remotely like it. With that in mind, this article could just have been me posting various song clips and going, “Look at this! Just look at it!” But I will restrain myself, and simply say to watch the movie. I find myself to be able to tune in to Luhrmann’s very unique wavelength, which I am aware is not everyone’s cup of tea. The Sydney native has directed only two more movies since this one 20 years ago, Australia (also starring Kidman and billed at the time as “the Australian Gone With the Wind,” it was mostly overlooked in the US but became a major hit overseas) and an adaptation of The Great Gatsby (starring DiCaprio, I ended up having mixed feelings about it, though you are very likely to have see gifs of it on Twitter). However, he has apparently completed filming of his next project, a musical biopic simply titled Elvis, which is set for release later this year.

I’ll close, then, with a technicality, which is that I’m classifying this movie for purposes of this site’s archives as an Australian film, because even though it was a major American studio movie it was entirely shot in Australia, by an Australian director, with a mostly-Australian cast (including Kidman herself, who was grew up in Sydney but was born to Australian parents while they were on student visas in Hawaii, meaning she holds dual citizenship). This is on the other side of the line from my perspective from, say, Roman Holiday, which I classified as an American movie despite being shot in Italy with a mostly Italian crew and supporting cast, because it was from an American studio with an American director and American and/or British stars (and was in English). This is a different standard, maybe I should say, from the American Film Institute, which seems to consider any movies that might have any claim whatsoever to be “American films” for purposes of its various lists and what not. Anyway, go check out our Movies page for all of our archives, I really enjoy putting a lot of work into it.

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