True movie magic is born in those viewing experiences that, even decades down the track, are still as vivid in your mind as the day you first watched the film. I was 7 years old the first time I experienced 'Moulin Rouge!', far too young to really understand the whirlwind romance of penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor, 'Birds of Prey') and his courtesan paramour Satine (Nicole Kidman, 'Bombshell'). I was, however, swept up in the excess, the costumes, and the music, and even though it would be years before I watched it again, the 'Elephant Love Medley' would be a mainstay in my mind whenever a song it samples would play on the radio. Simply put, I had never seen anything look that lavish and unique in my young life.
It's strange to think of 'Moulin Rouge!' as a film that is now 20 years old, as nothing about it really makes it feel like a product of its time. Perhaps this is a result of director Baz Luhrmann pulling from so many influences, both modern and ancient, "high" art and "low" culture, and in doing so birthing a perfect, hyper-textual pop culture storm.
Set in Paris in 1900, a heartbroken and depressed Christian laments the year prior, which culminated in his beloved Satine's passing. You would think that telling audiences how the story will end in the very opening scene would dilute their interest, but Luhrmann utilises both flashback and "play-within-a-play" structures to have fun with the story and add another meta dimension to the affair. Desperate for a new investor in the Moulin Rouge, owner Harry Zidler (Jim Broadbent, 'Dolittle') promises his star Satine to the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxbough, 'H is for Happiness'). When Christian's attempt to sell his play 'Spectacular Spectacular' to Zidler goes haywire, he is mistaken for the Duke and whisked away to Satine's room, improvising a plot for the play (and an alibi for his budding romance with Satine) when the Duke discovers them. If it sounds all a bit messy, that's because it is. But it is a sight to behold.
At its core, 'Moulin Rouge!' is a film all about nostalgia and love: Luhrmann has spoken at length about the inspirations for the film, which range from operas to Bollywood cinema. The combining of the avenues of high art with more mainstream pop culture and music makes it perhaps the pinnacle of postmodernism in cinema, right from the audacious opening scene. The film rarely allows you a second to breathe, stuffed with more colours, zany gags, and blink-and-you'll-miss-them pop culture references than you can poke a stick at. As playful as it is kitsch, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film is actually far more controlled than one might originally assume. The very nature of the musical format requires audiences to reconnect with their own nostalgia in the same way Bollywood films often require reconnection to Indian culture. Beyond this, the aesthetics of 'Moulin Rouge!' are also heavily inspired by Bollywood, from Satine's bejewelled elephant room to the final performance of 'Spectacular Spectacular'. Of course, the blending of so many references and inspirations may require more hypertextuality than audiences are used to, but by outlining the film's endgame from the opening scene, audiences can spend less time picking up on foreshadowing to predict the film's twists and more time simply enjoying the "ha!" moments of recognition. Certainly, anything goes in 'Moulin Rouge!', but it just so happens that that "anything" is not only meticulously planned, but works exceptionally well.
While its leads would later be known for other roles, rarely have Kidman and McGregor been in as fine form as they are in 'Moulin Rouge!' In the midst of a costume change during her captivating performance of 'Sparkling Diamonds', Satine asks Zidler what the Duke's type is: "Wilting flower? Bright and bubbly? Or smouldering temptress?" In 2001, Kidman needed to take back the reigns of her public persona, lest she be remembered as "Tom Cruise's ex-wife" and not "esteemed actress and future Academy Award winner". In 'Moulin Rouge!', she plays the wilting flower, the bright and bubbly, and the soldering temptress all with ease, sometimes simultaneously, and one of 'Moulin Rouge!'s' biggest draws is watching Kidman command every single frame she is in. Her performance was deservedly lauded by critics, and her Best Actress nomination was one of eight 'Moulin Rouge!' received from the Academy Awards, which also included Best Picture (the film took home awards for Costume Design and Art Direction). Likewise, McGregor is bursting with charm, a sincere and love-struck foil to Kidman's theatre kid-like gusto for the big musical numbers, but hesitant cynicism in quieter moments. Their performances, particularly the 'Elephant Love Medley', are such delectable tos and fros that when they finally go in for the triumphant kiss, you're left with nothing but pure satisfaction. I dare you to come away from the film without at least one of these performances earmwormed into your head.
'Moulin Rouge!' feels both years ahead of its time and timeless altogether.
The jukebox musical is one that really needs to pull out all the stops for me to warm to it, and the last thing 'Moulin Rouge!' could ever be described as is hesitant. The film's turn of the 20th century setting is filled to the brim with performances, reimaginings and mashups of modern pop classics such as 'Your Song' by Elton John and 'Roxanne' by The Police (in an unforgettable tango sequence steeped in tension). The familiarity of these songs is a clever hook for reluctant audiences to buy into the spectacle, but the fresh air breathed into them in their 'Moulin Rouge!' permutations offers a unique way to reconnect with these songs. Of course, one cannot possibly discuss the impact of 'Moulin Rouge!' on pop culture without mentioning the show-stopping cover of Labelle's 1974 song 'Lady Marmalade', performed for the film by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink. Widely considered one of the best female collaborations of all time, the track hit number one in 14 countries and inspired a slew of far inferior soundtrack collaborations for years to come (does anyone remember 2019's 'Don't Call Me Angel' from the 'Charlie's Angels' reboot? I barely do!). With a mountain of tracks that were so popular that a second volume of the soundtrack was released, the competition would be stiff for an original track. 'Come What May', the sole original song written for the film, starts out not unlike a baby animal still finding its legs, sung in small sections before bringing down the house in a triumphant finale of a performance. McGregor and Kidman were not formally trained singers, but their full-bodied commitment makes the moment one of the film's strongest.
On paper, 'Moulin Rouge!' shouldn't work, but even after 20 years, there's nothing quite like it. It is a singular cinematic experience that demands its audience jump in headfirst, leaving them no other choice than to get swept away in the craziness of it all. It is a film that feels both years ahead of its time and timeless altogether.