The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

Review: Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrman
Kyla Lacey-Davidson

The year? 1900. The place? Montmartre. We are? An audience watching from just opposite the Moulin Rouge. Baz Luhrman is about to dance us through the wild bohemian life of Paris at the turn of the century.

Like Luhrman’s other two films, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge! is a film full to the brim with fun, overflowing with optical treats and bursting with auditory goodness.

The question here though is Moulin Rouge!’s authenticity. And it is for this reason that I ask you to keep the word ‘fun’ in your mind. Luhrman takes us back to a time that was new, wild and exciting, a time that fell between two wars when the people of France were feeling liberated. The division between classes that once stood so strong was lapsing. Men of all walks of life frequented the Moulin Rouge. Luhrman has maintained this quite vital truth throughout the film. Although a rivalry is apparent, there are moments in the film when the slackened divisions are quite clear, for example when the impoverished bohemians attend for an evening and are sat next to the wealthy Duke.

The Moulin Rouge was and is still today a place for adult amusement. It lapsed only for a few decades when between the World Wars Pathé owned and used the site as a cinema, its reputation of holding some of the most superb evenings in Paris, not recovering until 1951. When it opened in 1890, the Moulin Rouge dancers were doing the Cancan that, today is a generally poorly imitated and overused dance routine, but was at the time refreshingly naughty and mischievous. Here we come to one of the differences between the Moulin Rouge and Moulin Rouge! — There is a distinct lack of flesh in Moulin Rouge! in comparison to what would have been seen at the Moulin Rouge; a nude Cleopatra would be carried in by four men each night, surrounded by nude girls laying on flower beds; where the knickers worn by the dancers were in fact split—voiding the authenticity of every shot in the film where the camera thrusts towards ruffled silk knickers.

However this is done for good reason: this film is meant to be naughty but fun, flirty but for all to see. With split knickers and a naked Cleopatra, Luhrman would certainly not have attained the 12 rating he desired to make this film accessible to all. Aside from the technicalities of certification, we must also consider the excitement that Luhrman creates in this film. Nudity is so commonplace in the media today due to ever-slackening censorship that to see a beautiful, but naked lady is perhaps now less exciting than to see a beautiful lady wearing suggestive and alluring clothes.

It must also be noted that Luhrman has included in this story real characters from the real Moulin Rouge. Nini Patte-en-l’Air or Legs In The Air (as credited in the film) did work at the Moulin Rouge and is used as a key character in the movie; a clear catalyst with her antagonistic asides and sniggers. Also the renowned Toulouse Lautrec: Tragic artist who is now almost a symbol of the bohemian Paris at the turn-of-the-century. Perhaps more importantly, Charles Zidler, owner of the Moulin Rouge in the movie, was in fact the real co-owner of the Moulin Rouge at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet Luhrman does not deliver to us this detail alone: The real Zidler was obsessed and enthralled with the phenomenon that was electricity which was, at the time, still being manipulated by many inventors and scientists. By 1879 however, a filament lamp had been invented. This obsession of Zidler’s with the brightness and freshness of electricity is almost reminiscent of Luhrman’s obvious enthusiasm for creating and delivering to us a world which is bright and rich in every tangible way.

The soundtrack is perhaps the most pertinent mistake in terms of the films historical accuracy—the only song that can be placed at the time is the Complainte de la Butt which combines lyrics written in 1900 by Jean Renoir with music written by Georges van Parys in 1955 for a film called The French Cancan. The rest of the songs are new versions or medleys of songs from the past few decades with songs varying from Marc Bolan’s punchy and defiant The Children of The Revolution to the classic theme from The Sound of Music’s to Lamb’s beautifully subtle and sombre Gorecki.

Tangibility is a clear theme for Luhrman in this film: to make tangible to us the sensation of being part of the spectacle that was and is the Moulin Rouge of then and now. Luhrman’s enthusiasm for club culture emanates from all of his work, however with Moulin Rouge! he has been able to fully create that club scene he so enthuses over.

With Moulin Rouge!, Luhrman has tried to create not a historically accurate artefact, but an emotionally or sensually accurate piece that gives clear nods to the real history. And that he does: this wild, exciting, extravagant film invites us to join Luhrman on a roller coaster through the extreme and sensational Bohemian World.

© Kyla Lacey-Davidson December 2005

Kyla Lacey-Davidson is a Creative Writing Major at the University of Portsmouth

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