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Aussie auteur Baz Luhrmann has crafted another unforgettable film.

Seeing "Rouge"

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More artistic vision than traditional movie, "Moulin Rouge" left me stunned. And I mean that in the best and worst ways possible. With "Rouge," Australian writer/director Baz Luhrmann subjects us to a personal fantasy, a sensory overload intended to breathe life into the once-prominent musical-film form. For the most part, Luhrmann succeeds. When the fantastical, digitally enhanced song-and-dance numbers fill the screen, the effect is infectiously thrilling. But when each production number ends, there's an accompanying letdown that accumulates. For we know that each final note signals a return to Luhrmann's paper-thin and thoroughly artificial storyline.

The film's hero and narrator is Christian (Ewan McGregor), a penniless poet who gravitates to the Bohemian lifestyle of 1890s Paris. His goals are simple and pure: "to write about truth, beauty, freedom and love." Hooking up with a band of thespians putting together a play to perform at the infamous Moulin Rouge, Christian finds himself befriended by none-other-than Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo). Championing his newest find, Lautrec gets him a one-on-one interview with the star of the Moulin Rouge's racy revue, Satine (Nicole Kidman).

Not surprisingly, the two become smitten with each other. Of course, there are stumbling blocks to their burgeoning love. Not the least of which includes a severe Camille-style case of consumption, and the fact that a wealthy duke has bought and paid for our pretty Satine.

Continuing the anachronistic trend started by Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" and more recently "A Knight's Tale," "Moulin Rouge" fuses old with new for a dazzling musical and visual pastiche. Transforming 1899 Paris into a hallucinogenic mind-meld where characters sing "The Sound of Music," Elton John's "Your Song" and The Police's "Roxanne," this "Moulin" may have plenty of purists seeing rouge. But even they may have a difficult time leveling criticism at Luhrmann. For, in truth, there is never a sense of reality about a single frame of this bombastic bit of showmanship.

Luhrmann, who charmed American moviegoers with his art-house romance "Strictly Ballroom" and generated a continuing debate with his mixed-media approach to "Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," cites India's "masala" movies as his prime influence for "Moulin." They are known for their delirious romanticism, cheesy visuals and shameless lip-synching, so one can see the connection. But there's a great deal of Busby Berkeley (the undisputed master of the grand, old Hollywood production number) in "Moulin" as well.

Most of the dialogue consists of snippets of pop-song lyrics, with McGregor's Christian telling his friends more than once that "love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!" Even a lengthy duet between Kidman and McGregor features snatches of '80s hits as varied as U2's "In the Name of Love," "I was Mad for Loving You" and "Don't Leave Me this Way."

Kidman's Satine, as we know from the trailers, reprises "Diamond's are a Girl's Best Friend" as well as Madonna's "Material Girl." Even secondary characters get a chance to warble, most notably Jim Broadbent (as Moulin owner Zidler) who gets to croon another Madonna song, "Like A Virgin."

Happily, McGregor has a nice, if soft, singing voice. And surprisingly, Kidman's voice isn't as thin as one might expect. Though, a little contralto from either of the stars would have gone a long way toward making their numbers really sing. Instead, all the flash and dash must come from Lurhmann's visuals. Thankfully, Luhrmann has razzle-dazzle to spare.

Over-the-top and proud of it, "Moulin Rouge" will spark more debate over Luhrmann's place in contemporary film history. While some will find "Moulin Rouge" a postmodern hell, others will be jazzed by the spectacle and by the physical energy that rushes from the screen. But unlike Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," which had Shakespeare's timeless tragic tale of star-crossed lovers to propel its heady mix of anachronisms, "Moulin Rouge" falls flat when the music stops.

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