Yes, 'Rouge' Can, Can, Can

Baz Luhrmann's deliriously energetic, promiscuously postmodern, tragicomical musical "Moulin Rouge" starts at such a frenetic level I thought it was going to self-destruct before it even got started. Imagine a Ken Russell movie run at double speed. We are hurled into a make-believe, studio-constructed Paris in "the summer of love," 1899, a decadent bohemian paradise startlingly stocked with 20th-century cultural artifacts. Instead of Offenbach, we get "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) hums "The Sound of Music." In Luhrmann's Montmartre, the moon has a smiling face, lovers dance on clouds and a beautiful courtesan (Nicole Kidman) falls in love with a penniless poet (Ewan McGregor) when he serenades her with Elton John's "Your Song."

It was precisely at that moment that my fears melted away and I was swept up in the moonstruck lunacy of Luhrmann's vision. Like his razzle-dazzle "Romeo + Juliet," his new venture walks a tightrope between the vulgar and the sublime. With "Moulin Rouge," he has raised the level of his game, deconstructing the Hollywood musical--a genre all but left for dead--and reassembling it with a potency that hasn't been seen since "Cabaret."

Like an opera, "Moulin Rouge" deals in primal emotions and archetypal characters. The story, concocted of borrowed cliches ("La Boheme," "Camille"), is deliberately deja vu. Kidman's Satine, the crown jewel of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, is torn between her love for McGregor's idealistic writer Christian and the attentions of a rich, smarmy duke (Richard Roxburgh) whose money is needed for the club's first production: a musical fantasia, written by Christian and starring Satine, about a woman torn between an impoverished sitar player and a powerful maharajah. Meanwhile, the beautiful Satine is dying of consumption. Luhrmann practically dares us to scoff at such secondhand ruses, but damn if it doesn't steal our hearts.

McGregor's generous, openhearted performance warms up Kidman's alabaster-cool beauty. Both stars hurl themselves into the movie's reckless spirit, unafraid of looking foolish, adroitly attuned to Luhrmann's abrupt swings from farce to tragedy. (And both sing well.) In one of the film's highlights, they court with a medley of love songs--deftly rearranged snippets from "All You Need Is Love" and U2's "In the Name of Love" to Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." It may sound like a gimmick, but it plays like a dream. Elsewhere, Madonna's "Like a Virgin" is turned into a delightful comic number for the wonderful Jim Broadbent, who plays a rouged master of ceremonies. "Moulin Rouge" seems to defy esthetic gravity: by reveling in all things artificial, it arrives, giddily, at the genuine.