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Moulin Rouge

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • Updated Nov 24, 2009
Moulin Rouge

from Film Forum, 06/07/01

Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, sentimental Strictly Ballroom became an unexpected international hit in the mid-'90s, integrating pop tunes and a Rocky formula with the world of ballroom dancing.. Then he mixed up time periods and cultural references for the Leonardo DiCaprio edition of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. These hyperstylish productions were, it seems, just the warm-up. Luhrmann's new film Moulin Rouge is even more outrageous, more musical, and more audaciously sentimental. (Would you like cheese with that musical?)

Plunging us into a half-historical, half-fantasy Paris in 1899, Luhrmann establishes a fairy-tale tone right off the bat. We're introduced to a talented but penniless poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor), a celebrity showgirl named Satine (Nicole Kidman), the greedy and melodramatic manager of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, and a wicked lustful investor known as "The Duke." Christian's talent for song is discovered by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who urges him to compose lyrics for a new play that will star Satine and promote the Bohemian subculture creed of "freedom, beauty, truth and love." Christian accepts, and is sent before Satine to have his lyrics approved. It's love at first sight … at least for Christian. He has a nasty rival for Satine's heart—the Duke. Will Satine choose the way of true love, and respond to Christian's poetic overtures? Or will she choose the road to fame and fortune, selling herself to the loathsome Duke, who will then finance the play?

Most critics are bewildered and impressed by Moulin Rouge 's adrenaline-rush spectacle. Some like the exaggerated style, which is one part melodrama and two parts Loony Toons. Others complain about a lack of cake under the frosting. Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune calls it "a rare picture that gets you intoxicated on the possibilities of movies." In the same town, the Sun-Times' Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, but also remarked, "It's like being trapped on an elevator with the circus." The U.S. Catholic Conference enthuses: "Luhrmann's wildly creative blend of diverse music and visual styles is a madly paced triumph of artifice over substance in its gushy valentine to romantic love." Michael Elliott at Movie Parables writes that Luhrmann's "greatest accomplishment was not the technical prowess he demonstrated, but rather the way he extracted total commitment from his cast. As bizarre or extreme as the characters may have been, the actors threw themselves into their roles with utter conviction. This is the finest work I've yet seen from Ewan McGregor, and his singing voice is perfect for musical theater … strong, clear, and highly emotive."

In other religious media, the bawdy humor and sexual nature of many scenes became a point of contention. Movieguide recognizes the "colorful and comedic cast of characters" and its "amazingly beautiful and elaborate set designs", but protests: "The movie's romantic worldview promotes erotic frenzy in the name of love." "True to the reputation of the nightclub," writes Preview's uncredited critic, "the patrons and performers partake of heavy drinking, drugs, and prostitution. The Can-Can dance is all about showing the women's underwear, or lack of it, and other revealing costumes invite male stares while the female performers invite the men for later assignations." This earns the film their rating of "quite objectionable."

But Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam defends these onscreen shenanigans. "What else can be expected from a show set in a cabaret/brothel? No attempt is made to soften the showgirls' job description; they make their living by getting men in bed. The clothing is scant, the dancing is seductive, and everyone is a commodity. Which is what makes Christian unique. When he and Satine first meet, he's not even thinking about sex." She argues that the film emphasizes the difference between sex and true love. She writes, "the film's definition of real love hits the bullseye. [Christian] is willing to commit to her forever. If Satine can be pulled from her old lifestyle, Christian's is definitely the kind of love that is powerful enough to do it." She does, however, protest the film's teenage marketing target as too young an audience for such sexy stuff.

Holly McClure at The Dove Foundation was apparently too bewildered to see any meaning at all. She describes Moulin Rouge as being like "voyeuristically watching a director film and edit on a drug trip. It's that weird and that annoying. What were the people who put this together thinking? This movie is going to bomb once the word gets out. Most men will hate it and women will be turned off by the lack of romance or character chemistry."

I, for one, don't fulfill McClure's prophecy. I'm not a guy known for liking musicals, but I laughed and cheered when I saw the film over the weekend. The high-spirited imagination, the surprising appearances of familiar songs (by Elton John, Madonna, David Bowie, U2, and Sting, to name a few), and the fearless romanticism swept me away. I'd agree with Elliott's claims, and say this film marks career highs for McGregor, Kidman, Broadbent, and Luhrmann himself. I got right back in line to take my wife and our friends! All of us, both guys and dolls, loved it. And for the record, at both screenings I saw women of all ages laughing, crying, and carried away on the movie's melodramatic tide.

Like the "silly love songs" it celebrates, Moulin Rouge is about idealism rather than realism. If it were any more down-to-earth, its enchanted balloon would burst; any heavier, it would come crashing down. Its unique magic lies in its ability to have fun and laugh at itself, thus avoiding sentimentality. You can sense Luhrmann winking at the audience even as he stuns us with fanciful sights and crescendos of sound unlike anything we've ever seen or heard in a movie theatre before. "Yeah, it's pop music," he seems to say, "but admit it … it speaks to you."

In my review at Looking Closer, I suggest that there's a deeper truth speaking to us in the story, whether the filmmakers know it or not. It's interesting that in the Moulin Rouge nightclub's labyrinth of the botched and the debauched, it is "Christian" love that perseveres and passes through fire. Christian redeems the unfaithful beloved. What a marvelous picture of how a follower of Christ should live and love—in but not of the world. And what a beautiful metaphor of God's relentless love, pursuing us in spite of our fickle hearts and our unfaithfulness. We all yearn to be loved the way Christian loves Satine, and thus the songs speak to us. But can we ourselves love so wholeheartedly?

from Film Forum, 06/28/01

At Hollywood Jesus, David Bruce now offers a generously in-depth look at the symbolism of the popular musical Moulin Rouge. (We covered reviews of this film a few weeks back.) "There is no surprise ending," writes Bruce. "We have seen this familiar story before in other incarnations. And yet, this film tells this story in a such a way that we feel it is being told for the very first time. On a deeper level this story is about the needless divorce between Christian spirituality and natural sensuality. It is about how the worldly system exploits God-given sexuality for greed and money. It is about overcoming sexual shame and dehumanizing behavior, while enjoying human love and sexuality as it was intended by God." Personally speaking, Moulin Rouge is my favorite film of the year so far, for its relentless imagination, its energy, and its insistence on the superiority of committed, wholehearted, selfless love over the carnal appetites of possessive and lustful "love." Bruce's examination of the movie's use of color deepened my appreciation for director Baz Luhrmann's achievement.

from Film Forum, 01/17/02

Dan Buck nominates Moulin Rouge: "As a Christian artist I see my peers bowing to the status quo of Christian art. Great minds are reduced to painting landscapes with Bible verses blazoned across them, [making] videos to 15-year-old Christian propaganda songs, and creating music that all sounds the same. Hollywood is equally restrictive on its filmmakers. The formulas are in place, but Baz Luhrman has chose not to use them and has still created beautiful art. His film moves me and his courage inspires me."

He admits, "There is little that will make this movie a favorite among most Christians. The story takes place around a 1900s brothel and its themes are a rehash of old ideas of Beauty, Freedom, Truth, and Love being victorious over Greed, Malice, Power, and Hatred. Yet, Baz Luhrman has unleashed his imagination. The result is a visual cacophony of sights and sounds that flood the viewer." Our first reaction is to gasp for air, but then we start to fall in love. With the characters, with the music and with the imaginative powerhouse that lies behind it all."

from Film Forum, 03/14/02

Were you offended by the debauchery on display in the Oscar-nominated Moulin Rogue? Or were you dazzled by its lights, music, zany comedy, and melodrama? (Perhaps you were put off by its pell-mell bombast.) Whatever your response, you should visit Books & Culture this week, where Douglas Jones offers an insightful interpretation. Jones calls the film "a wonderful image of Christian cultural transformation. Instead of winning the Underworld by the tyranny of the ballot box or threats of searing tribulation, a Christian culture can seduce darkness to light by sonnet, tango, and fugue. Tell that story, Christian."