When you picture turn-of-the-century Paris and the ensuing creative explosion, what do you think of? Is it impressionist painters pushing the limits of what is considered "art"? Or can-can dancers kicking their way into the hearts (and wallets) of wealthy patrons who've come to be entertained by ladies of the night? Now picture all of these things paired with Elton John and David Bowie songs. I know. It sounds like a weird combination. But that's exactly what you get in Baz Luhrmann's musical epic Moulin Rouge!, starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. The combination of opera, rock, pop, and Bollywood with a splash of art nouveau gives us plenty to talk about in today's Crispy Chicken Wing Review.
Spoilers ahead. Reader discretion is advised.
So, what could this bizarre mixture of genres possibly be about? The film begins in the year 1900 in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, where an impoverished English poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor) despairingly recalls the love of his life, Satine (Nicole Kidman), who is now deceased. He sits down at a typewriter and begins to write down the story of how they met.
He recalls how in the previous year, he left London for Paris to live a penniless existence as a poet and live amongst the artists and writers that populated the Montmartre quarter. He moves into a cheap apartment with the famous painter Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), an Argentinean dancer who suffers from narcolepsy (Jacek Koman), and an odd assortment of artists and musicians who collectively refer to themselves as "The Bohemians".
The Bohemians take Christian to the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub and brothel owned by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). Unbeknownst to them, another guest is in the audience - The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), whom Zidler is attempting to court as an investor by offering an exclusive evening with Satine. Toulouse tells Christian that he too wants to get an audience with Zidler to produce a new theatrical venture. Satine gives a performance in the main ballroom of the club and Christian falls in love-at-first-sight with her. Her performance is interrupted by Satine having a coughing fit (which is caused by tuberculosis, which she later learns is fatal), but quickly recovers and returns to the ballroom. She dances with Christian, mistaking him for the Duke, and invites him to her bedroom for a private poetry reading.
Their meeting is interrupted by Zidler, the Bohemians, and the Duke, who is outraged that Zidler didn’t deliver on what was promised to him. Christian, Satine, Zidler, and the Bohemians successfully sway the Duke into investing by improvising a thinly veiled version of the love between Christian and Satine.
Rehearsals then begin for the production, with Christian and Satine meeting in secret. The Duke grows suspicious of their relationship, insisting that Satine still owes him a private evening. Her illness gradually worsens as the rehearsals continue, and Zidler discovers Satine and Christian together. Zidler informs her that the Duke has the deeds to the Moulin Rouge and that he was aware of her sickness all along.
The night before opening the show, Satine goes to meet the Duke, who is threatening to pull funding from the production unless Satine fulfills her promise. When the play opens, Christian is in the audience. Satine declares her love for Christian and the two forgive each other for the heartache they've caused each other. She makes Christian promise her not to give up on love and to tell their story, and then dies in his arms.
Freedom - the film is about the freedom to express oneself freely without judgement or scrutiny. Christian and Satine fight to be together without the judgemental eyes of the Duke and Zidler.
Beauty - the boundaries of what can be considered "art" are always evolving, and this film definitely plays with that idea. You'd think a Bollywood version of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" or a homoerotic cover of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" wouldn't work. They both definitely sound weird on paper. But on screen it not only works, but it's amazing to watch.
Truth - in the end, we can't change or hide who we are. Whether it be a prostitute and a poet who are in love or a businessman who knows he's backed into a corner by investors, the truth always comes out in the end.
Love - above all things, this movie is about the different kinds of love. Christian finds love in his newfound family of Bohemians, romantic love in Satine, love for his art, and love for himself.
Aesthetically, this movie is an absolute confection. Even after several re-watches, I always find something new to look at. I also really like how, while turn-of-the-century Paris is often romanticized in art, the movie doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of it (alcohol and drug use, prostitution, poverty, etc.) Even with the ugliness of the slums of Paris, there is still something beautiful to be found. What I love about this movie is that it's unabashedly experimental. From the "red curtain" style of editing that Baz Luhrmann is famous for to the eclectic blending of genres, the movie is unapologetic about its unusual nature. Borrowing from Broadway, opera, Bollywood, and rock, it takes all these styles that sound contradictory on paper and makes it into something spectacular. I give it 5/5 Crispy Chicken Wings.
*Make sure to tune into The Crispy Soul Podcast, where we go more into depth on this topic, available on all major streaming apps.