A celebration of love and creative inspiration takes place in the infamous, gaudy and glamorous Parisian nightclub, at the cusp of the 20th century. A young poet, who is plunged into the heady world of Moulin Rouge, begins a passionate affair with the club’s most notorious and beautiful star.
“Moulin Rouge” the movie is more like the Moulin Rouge of my adolescent fantasies than the real Moulin Rouge ever could be. It isn’t about tired, decadent people, but about glorious romantics, who believe in the glitz and the tinsel–who see the nightclub not as a shabby tourist trap but as a stage for their dreams. Even its villain is a love-struck duke who gnashes his way into the fantasy, content to play a starring role however venal.
The film is constructed like the fevered snapshots created by your imagination before an anticipated erotic encounter. It doesn’t depend on dialogue or situation but on the way you imagine a fantasy object first from one angle and then another. Satine, the heroine, is seen not so much in dramatic situations as in poses–in postcards for the yearning mind. The movie is about how we imagine its world. It is perfectly appropriate that it was filmed on sound stages in Australia; Paris has always existed best in the minds of its admirers.
The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a star dancer who has a deadly secret; she is dying of tuberculosis. This is not a secret from the audience, which learns it early on, but from Christian (Ewan McGregor), the would-be writer who loves her. Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the dwarf artist, lives above Christian, and one day comes crashing through the ceiling of their flimsy tenement, sparking a friendship and collaboration: They will write a show to spotlight Satine’s brilliance, as well as “truth, beauty, freedom and love.” (I was reminded of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s motto in “Singin’ in the Rain”: “Dignity. Always dignity.”) The show must be financed; enter the venal Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who wants to pay for the show and for Satine’s favors. The ringmaster is Zidler (Jim Broadbent), impresario of the Moulin Rouge.
Each of these characters is seen in terms of their own fantasies about themselves. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, is flamboyant and romantic; Christian is lonely and lovelorn; Satine has a good heart and only seems to be a bad girl; Zidler pretends to be all business but is a softy, and the Duke can be so easily duped because being duped is the essence of his role in life. Those who think they can buy affection are suckers; a wise man is content to rent it.