Moulin Rouge is quite an achievement. Songs and imagery taken from a century of film, musicals and pop are mixed into a dense, intoxicating fantasy set in a dream-like recreation of 1899 Montmartre and its primary venue for debauchery, the Moulin Rouge.
"A nightclub. A dance hall. A bordello," is how young British poet Christian (McGregor) describes it when he first arrives, wide-eyed, in the company of a troupe of champion bohemians led by the diminutive Toulouse-Lautrec (Leguizamo). The first 20 minutes of the film are overwhelming, reflecting what Christian is feeling as he enters the packed club, surrounded by crowds of top-hatted gents and high-kicking courtesans.
The first of the film's musical set-pieces involves the can-can dancers singing 'Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi?' en masse, while the male punters reply with the Kurt Cobain refrain "Here we are now, entertain us!" Subsequently, you relax into the film's delirious (un)reality, with the power of its musical performances - which really work - repeatedly sending tingles down the spine.
This mixing of songs - influenced by contemporary DJ-ing - is fundamental to the character of the film. Medley upon medley of show tunes and pop love ballads recur, notably between Christian and the glamourous courtesan he falls for, Satine (Kidman). Together they manage a moving rendition of Elton John's 'Your Song', with the conceit that it is Christian's poetic creation for Satine. Although every musical number is a treat, other stand-outs are a potent flamenco version of 'Roxanne' and the insane duet between Jim Broadbent's Zidler (the owner of the club) and Richard Roxburgh's The Duke (the villain of the piece, who tries to buy Satine's affections) on 'Like A Virgin'.
Providing a backdrop for the music are highly imaginative sets - intense in detail and splendour, thanks to production designer Catherine Martin - with exotic trappings, deep shadows and the richest of possible colour schemes (with an emphasis on the titular rouge). Set among these baroque elements is a conventionally tragic love story - Satine is dying of that most romantic of diseases, consumption.