If you believe in reincarnation you should now believe that Baz Luhrmann is the reincarnation of the great French wild man of film, the director Max Ophuls. Ophuls was in love with motion, with color, with lighting, with astounding camera moves that no one else had ever thought to make; and in his 1955 film "Lola Montes" he swung his Cinemascope camera dizzyingly around and around a huge three-ring circus while acrobats, animals, clowns and showgirls all blazed through their paces on the floor and in the air as the camera swept us past them. It was, and is, one of the great shots in all of film history.
Watching "Moulin Rouge" we can forget Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom," a classroom exercise that pales alongside his "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge." The emotional heat of "Romeo and Juliet," with its gang fights, its monstrosity of a city, its surging passions, its astounding final shot in the church with something like ten thousand candles burning over the bodies of the lovers, all of those are only an introduction to the shots and editing we see in "Moulin Rouge." Here he immerses himself, and us, in the ravishingly sensuous quality of motion picture colors, movement, and lighting. He uses his shots - and his editing - to create a montage that assaults us and overwhelms our eyes. Along with his wildly fanciful sets and period costumes he takes us to visual heights that I for one have never seen before.
But oh, where is William Shakespeare when you need him? He was there for "R & J," but he is sadly missing now. The script for "Moulin Rouge," by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, is so abominably trite that we wonder if it wasn't meant as a parody. Aspiring poet Christian (Ewan McGregor) comes to Paris in 1899 and heads straight to Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, where he meets Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and falls in love with the divine courtesan/star of the show Satine (Nicole Kidman). Satine is dying of tuberculosis (at one point she says to McGregor: "Tell our story, Christian." You want her to add: "Call it 'Camille.'") though you wouldn't know it to look at her; she sings, dances and does some heavy petting with only the slightest hint of a cough, until - well, you can guess.
Manager of the theatre and producer of the Moulin Rouge show is Zidler (Jim Broadbent), who needs evil Duke of Worcester Richard Roxburgh to put up the money to save the theatre. But the Duke wants Satine for himself and will only give the money if he can have her, in the Biblical sense as we say.
That's it; that's the film. Except that it isn't really the film, because "Moulin Rouge" is filled with anachronistic music, sung and danced by its leads (and everyone else), who do an incredible string of fifties, sixties and seventies hits, from "Nature Boy" - the film's emblematic theme song, no kidding - to Elton John's "Your Song," to "Lady Marmalade" ('Voulez vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?') to "Like a Virgin" to "All You Need Is Love" to, well, you get the idea. Oddly, the songs are the best part of the film - shot and edited with more cuts per second of running time than you would think physically possible - and yet they all work in context.
"Moulin Rouge" is a mad folly - a film that is both terrible and wonderful at the same time. Is there anyone like Luhrmann working in film today? No, and we can be both grateful and sad that he is unique. I don't know that we could handle two of him, but in his strange way he enriches us all.