Of all critics' clichés, the accusation of "style over substance" is one of the most misused and dismissive. And, since its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival, that's exactly what many critics (well, the oldest and stuffiest, at least) have been saying about Moulin Rouge. But this is missing the point. In Baz Luhrmann's bold, brash follow-up to Romeo + Juliet the style is the substance.
From the opening CG-whirl through late-19th century Paris to the Bollywood colour-burst of the final big show, the vibrancy and vigour is overwhelming. The atmosphere is thick with think-and-you'll-miss-'em pop culture references, costume and make-up department excess and some shamelessly OTT directorial flourishes. This may, during the first quarter-hour, leave you gasping for slightly less fresh air, but settle down and accept the devastating campness of it all, and you'll breathe easy for the rest of the movie's running time.
It's not without its flaws, though. Luhrmann's really let himself go here, and some of his favourite elements work less well than others. Much of the comedy is deliberately farcical, often skitting uncomfortably around Carry On territory. One scene sees Nicole Kidman's elegant courtesan confusing McGregor's flustered writer with a high-profile client. He thinks he's pitching a play, she thinks he's after sex... Cue various innuendos regarding the "length" of "it".
And while most of the cast are perfectly placed (any doubts about McGregor's singing voice after Velvet Goldmine will be quickly dispelled), one central player unfortunately grates: the usually excellent John Leguizamo as the flamboyant, shrill Toulouse-Lautrec. Of course Moulin Rouge is a theatrical affair, a rambunctious pop opera, but Leguizamo fails to hit the right tone.
However, this doesn't prevent the movie's poperatic nature from being its finest feature. Luhrmann's use of music is borderline genius, with songs dissolving into each other with pleasing fluidity. The introduction to the Moulin Rouge club itself involves a sequence which smoothly segues between Lady Marmalade, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend and Material Girl, while a later scene turns The Police's Roxanne into a superbly gruff tango. Even having Jim Broadbent sing Like A Virgin somehow works.
Admittedly, all this overload does have the side-effect of emotionally distancing you slightly, and somewhat diminishes the impact of the climax, but the teaming of McGregor and Kidman is hot enough to stop you being left cold. Bizarre yet beautiful, cluttered yet cool, there's no denying that Moulin Rouge is like nothing you've ever seen before.
Baz Luhrmann has really let himself off the leash with this one, directing with the subtlety of a pyromaniac let loose in a fireworks factory. A few of the rockets turn out to be duds, but trust us: despite this, Moulin Rouge is still a blast.