Ewan McGregor shows up as Christian, an unemployed writer who, because it is a movie, has a miraculous gift for song composition and improvisation. He joins the club troupe, and promptly falls for Saltine, because, after all, she is the only attractive woman in the entire film. His love is returned, since every musical needs a love story.
Alas, Saltine is slowly dying from tuberculosis, only she doesn't know it. She is torn between her forbidden love for Christian, and fulfilling the sexual obsessions of the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), an unpleasant but wealthy man whose funds are desperately needed by fawning Zidler.
How others will see it. The costly production was aggressively and successfully marketed as something different, a period musical with a romantic triangle and an innovative inclusion of boomer radio favorites. Critics were generally positive, and the box office was solid, 180M worldwide.
The film's buzz was so heady that it garnered eight Oscar nominations, including the big prizes of Best Picture and Best Actress (Kidman). Today at imdb.com, the film has a big 230K user votes, and a high user rating of 7.6 out of 10. Women grade it considerably higher than do men, though this rating declines with maturity, from 8.6 under age 18, to 8.1 under 30, to 7.9 under 45, and 7.5 over 45. Most appreciate the originality and monumental effort that went into the production, even if the results were slightly disappointing for some viewers.
How I felt about it. This film loses its way very early. A man crashes through the writer's ceiling; unconscious, precarious, and injured, yet nobody is concerned about him. Instead, they are eager to incorporate this impoverished nobody into their ranks. What about the injured man? Is he just a prop to laugh at?
The characters are shallow and stereotypical. This is epitomized by Toulouse-Lautrec. In the 1952 film, he is a short, pensive, and handicapped man who drew paintings of showgirls. Here he is an ebullient, lisping, and acrobatic party man. At least he's still short.
So the screen character in the 2001 has only the most facile correspondence to history. This is presumably also the case for Charles Zidler, who here seeks to pimp out his star performer to the highest bidder to fund his bloated productions. You'd never know that the Moulin Rouge was supposed to be in Paris. From this film, you'd think it was in London.
The characters not lifted from history are also stereotypes. The Duke is a snivelling, selfish, and spoiled man who is willing to spend a fortune, and endure weeks of insufferable rehearsals, simply to spend the night with a showgirl who dislikes him. Saltine should be cold and decadent, given her history and circumstances. Instead, she has a heart of gold, which can only be melted by the writer's loud, flat singing. He is also a stereotype, the man truly and obsessively in love.
The plot is from Greta Garbo's Camille. The soundtrack consists of inferior covers of familiar baby boomer pop songs. The sets and costumes are garish if not ugly, and demonstrate that you can buy an Oscar, after all. At least the choreography is good. Luhrmann should have stuck with that, and let someone else direct.