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Exquisite Excess 

Moulin Rouge (PG-13)
20th Century Fox

What a glorious mess!

Aussie director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) has once again pulled out the stops, lending overwrought, operatic tendencies to a simple tale, creating a film universe that is crowded, hyperactive, sodden with color and immersed in song.

I recommend you sink into your chair and just let it wash over you. Otherwise you might get a headache. Luhrmann's work should be approached as a sensuous, not a rational experience.

His previous films, though not actually musicals, have leaned heavily on a musical soundtrack to at once shock and comfort the audience, providing a quality of sing-along recognition while mixing up genres and periods. Moulin Rouge is a full-fledged musical where the characters break into song and dance when the moment demands.

A melodramatic mix of the Orpheus myth and La Bohme, the film takes us to Paris, 1899, and the Bohemian scene in Montmartre with the legendary nightclub, the Moulin Rouge, as its centerpiece. Ewan McGregor is Christian, a young penniless poet from the countryside, descending into the decadent underground world of artists, absinthe, truth, beauty, freedom and, above all things, love. Nicole Kidman is Satine, star of the Moulin Rouge stage and famed courtesan, who is dying of tuberculosis but wants, above all things, a chance at being a real actress. Satine is managed by Zidler, impresario of the club, played by British stage actor Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy), and is desired by the churlish Duke of Worcester, a pale and skeletal Richard Roxburgh. John Leguizamo, whizzing around on his knees, plays famed artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, whose band of friends embraces young Christian, determining on first meeting him that he should write the show that will bring dramatic glory to Satine, if only they can find a way to finance it.

The Duke cuts a deal with Zidler -- he'll finance the play if he can also have the exclusive favors of Satine. But Satine has fallen for Christian who is secretly teaching her the power of love -- Luhrmann's be-all and end-all, boldly resounding through most scenes in the film.

Luhrmann's frenetic cutting style, combined with elaborate sets that look like velvet-esconced Victorian valentines, keep the eye busy with almost more than it can handle. The viewer may feel that he's missing half the film, there's so much to see, but everything eventually sinks in. As with Luhumann's other films, walking away from this one leaves you saturated in the imagery it stays with you for days and re-emerges in pleasant memory.

Kidman's Satine is sultry and cool onstage, but touchingly sweet when she is wooed by Christian. McGregor's vocal strength is a pleasant surprise and his acting is endearing throughout. Together, they pull off the romantic musical scenes with a fresh ease and warmth.

Broadbent is the perfect comic foil. His musical numbers, like most of the others, are contemporary '70s and '80s pop tunes, and I guarantee you'll never forget his rendition of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." The Police's "Roxanne" makes for a spectacular tango scene and Kidman's rendition of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is cleverly balanced by a chorus of "Material Girl." A melange of contemporary love songs, cooed by McGregor from the Paris rooftops, sets old man moon smiling.

To accuse Moulin Rouge of excess is a little like saying the sun is too bright, the rain too wet. Luhrmann's manic visual style is unique in filmmaking, and stands as a testimony to what a director of unfettered imagination can do with costumes, sets, cameras and actors.

If this is too much, then I want more.

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