Set in a very tweaked Paris in 1899 -- though attuned to the present day via Beck and Mya and Sting and so on -- this is the story of the none too subtly named Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer on the lam from his cruel, ignorant, oppressive father. Lucking into a parallel dimension in which the denizens of France communicate by bursting into English-language pop hits of the late 20th century, the naive fellow -- to put it politely -- is about to have his illusions shattered. In the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre -- essentially the Haight or Village of its day -- his pure spirit is quickly absorbed by the titillating titular establishment, at once "a nightclub, a dance hall, and a bordello, where the rich and powerful play with the beautiful creatures of the underworld."
Foremost among these "Children of the Revolution" -- like Billy Elliot last year, this movie wears its T. Rex fandom with pride -- is the luminous Satine (Nicole Kidman). A highly coveted courtesan and performing star of the Moulin Rouge, she answers directly to the club's impresario, Zidler (Jim Broadbent), who yearns to transform his business into a full-blown theater. Although his most precious bird -- his "sparrow," his "gosling" -- wishes to fly, Zidler knows her beauty is the key to his renovation. To this end, in a paternal but scheming manner, he sets her up with the rude, wealthy Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who's lusting for a mutually satisfying transaction.
Meanwhile, however, while Christian lodges across the dirty street at l'Hotel Meublé, other plans are taking shape. When a man known as the Unconscious Argentinean (Jacek Koman) comes crashing through his ceiling, Christian suddenly finds himself ensconced in a theater troupe headed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), a diminutive bon vivant. Taken under the thesps' wings and chastely but affectionately felt up ("Nothing funny; I just like talent," stresses the Argentinean), Christian discovers his gift for song in their disorderly and ever-evolving production. He truly joins the group when they each knock back a glass of absinthe and are visited by the fanciful Green Fairy (Kylie Minogue, effulgence incarnate), whose presence graces and unifies them.
Thanks to a little sleight-of-hand from Toulouse-Lautrec, Christian and Satine soon repair to her astonishingly opulent boudoir, where his poetic oration first veers into single entendre ("It's quite long . . . but if you're open, then you might enjoy it!"), then shifts into an incredible medley of pop standards. The topic of romantic love being a pretty big deal around these parts, the two address it via the words and music of such disparate artists as U2 and Dolly Parton, the Beatles and Kiss, all framed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Your Song," which has never sounded better. When Bowie and Eno's "Heroes" is woven into the mix, it brings such a chill of delight that one is tempted to tell the entertainment industry to take the rest of the year off; this will do nicely, thank you.
And that's just the gentle stuff. Defined by Luhrmann as "the greatest rave there ever was," the Moulin Rouge was a volcano of lurid thrills in its day, but here he and production designer Catherine Martin (a.k.a. CM -- perhaps one day she'll work with director McG?) have amped the place to high heaven. Words like "flashy" and "bright" seem dusty and dull in this context, exploding with the thrilling costume design of CM and Angus Strathie, plus knockout choreography by John O'Connell (who cut the rugs for Luhrmann's previous films, as well as Muriel's Wedding). When Donald M. McAlpine's lens swoops through Brigitte Broch's grand sets to the music mix of Marius DeVries and score of Craig Armstrong, all detractors will be silenced, and mouths will fall open.
Jill Bilcock's editing deserves special commendation, as it's a dreamy wonder in its own right. A Luhrmann veteran as well as editor of Elizabeth and The Dish, Bilcock takes on the estimable task of blending this witty screenplay (by the director and Craig Pearce) with music-video pyrotechnics and a barrage of sensuous asides, coming up aces in every segment. (She must have been burning midnight oil, too, as the PR people at Fox bemoaned not having a finished print to show the media until the very last minute, the poor dears!) Apart from a bit of bloated bombast in the third act -- when the film briefly lapses in its commitment to fantasy and its Aussie Euro-yearning hangs out a little -- this thing moves brilliantly, sparkling like nothing we've seen domestically since The Wiz and Xanadu.
Having said that, it's a shame that the slaves of Hollywood can't convince their masters to let them have fun like this a bit more often. We can only hope that the pitch "Cabaret for the Starbucks generation" doesn't clear the first lackey in development, but really, what's wrong with mixing it up like this? For instance, sporting Lyle Lovett's scalp and Dalí's mustache, Broadbent arrives here with the authority of having played W.S. Gilbert to Allan Corduner's Arthur Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy (a film with similar theatrical themes). Soon enough, however, he's busting moves to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," and the chortles he summons feel amazing.
Kidman and McGregor also carry their roles and songs with heightened grace -- she offering her audience options ranging from "wilting flower, bright and bubbly, or smoldering temptress," before crumbling from all her pretending; he reminding us how satisfying it is when a man sings a song instead of retching it. Their chemistry is admittedly weird, but the characters' impossible passion feels undeniably real, so much so that when the Duke commands his footsoldier to "kill the boy," it is, metaphorically, the best thing anyone could hope for.