At the climax of Moulin Rouge, Ewan McGregor’s Christian states that the love which is central to the film’s story is one that will live on forever. It is a bold statement, one that requires the viewer to have brought in completely to the melodrama of the plot and the love triangle it depicts. Twenty years after the film’s debut, and is that statement still correct? Has the film aged well?
While more recent cinematic musicals have lent more realistic in terms of style and presentation, Moulin Rouge feels more akin to a highly stylised stage play. This hardly surprising, as the film is the third of director Baz Lehrman’s “Red Curtain Trilogy” where he employed a theatre motif in his films, following on from his prior films “Strictly Ballroom” and “Romeo + Juliet”. In fact, the main romance between McGregor’s Christian, an optimistic writer, and the world-wearier courtesan Satine (played by a brilliant if slightly loopy Nicole Kidman) feels very Shakespearean; star crossed lovers from two separate worlds, brought together by chance and ripped apart by forces far beyond their control.
Starring alongside McGregor and Kidman is Richard Roxburgh as the vile Duke of Monmouth and John Leguizamo, who gives a surprisingly delightful performance as Henri de Troulouse-Montrec, elevating a character that could have been simple comic relief into one who carries the heart of the film. However, the most impressive performance is definitely Jim Broadbent’s scene stealing performance as Harold Zidler, the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge. Fat, perpetually red faced and possessing facial hair that is more than a little off-putting, Zidler could have been little more than a sleazy charlatan, but Broadbent gives him a great deal of depth, portraying him as a man desperately seeking to stay in command of a situation that is quickly spiralling into chaos.
And chaos is what the film is, at least visually. This is down to how stylised Moulin Rouge is; the film completely embraces artificiality, in some instances explicitly drawing the viewers’ attention to the fact that, yes, they are watching a film. Gritty realism is chucked out the window in all but a few scenes, instead leaning hard into melodrama and camp. Punch ins are telegraphed with sound effects, footage is sped up to make the viewer disorientated, quick cuts and overlapping music combine to create a sense of confusion. None of this is more apparent in what may be the best scene in the film, wherein Christian visits the Moulin Rouge for the first time. The music, all ripped from pop hits from the 90s, swirl and intermingle, overlapping in places. A line from Lady Marmalade mixes into the chorus of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Kidman performs Diamonds are A Girl’s Best Friend, before suddenly including lines from Material Girl. Christian is lost and overwhelmed in this scene, and it is not difficult for the audience to feel a similar sense of bewilderment.
But despite this confusion, it still feels easy to fall into this brightly coloured, amazingly crafted world that Luhrman has created. While the story may be pretty standard, the inspired musical direction and winning performances more than make up for this. It has been more than twenty years since Moulin Rouge’s release, and we are still talking about, more than can be said for more the more recent dull realism obsessed affairs like Les Misérables or the Hollywood worshipping La La Land. By letting the audience see the artifice behind the magic, Moulin Rouge has ensured that this story, of these people, in this place at that specific time, will live on forever.