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The film begins with a shot of Matthew Whittet, as the character "Satie," standing on a stage in front of red velvet curtains in the nightclub Moulin Rouge. As the curtains open, Satie conducts an orchestra playing the famous Twentieth Century Fox fanfare over a shot of the company's logo. The curtains close, then re-open to reveal the titles "Twentieth Century Fox Presents/A Bazmark Production/Moulin Rouge!/Paris, 1990." The titles are designed to look as if they were from an early black-and-white, silent movie. After the time and setting are established, the camera moves past the curtains and into the screen behind Satie. After a brief shot of John Leguizamo, as "Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," singing "Nature Boy," a long traveling shot of Paris in miniature leads to a flowing shot through the streets of Montmartre and up into the rooms of "Christian." The sequence begins in black-and-white, with an increasing color tint until it becomes full color with the appearance of Christian.
The May 28, 2001 Newsweek review noted that Twentieth Century Fox originally objected to director Baz Luhrmann's unusual presentation of its theme music, which was written in the 1930s by longtime Fox composer Alfred Newman. According to the film's presskit, the shots of Paris were obtained using a collage created by Catherine Martin, the picture's production and costume designer, and the streets of Montmartre were created in miniature in one-fifth or one-sixth scale, with photographs and film of real people digitally added.
The acting and crew credits for the picture appear at the end of the film; the first time the actors are listed, without character names, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent and Richard Roxburgh receive individual title cards. The end credits begin with a card reading: "In Memorium, Leonard Luhrmann, 1934-1999." Leonard Luhrmann, who died while the film was beginning production, was the father of director Baz Luhrmann. After the end credits, the Bohemian motto "This Story Is About Truth, Beauty, Freedom, But Above All, Love," is flashed on the screen in stylized title cards. ["Bohemianism," a movement that began largely in Paris in the mid-to-late 1800s, promoted the concepts of creating art for its own sake, rejecting wealth and pursuing idealized notions of love and truth.] Voice-over narration by Ewan McGregor, as "Christian," is heard throughout the picture, as if the film is illustrating the novel he is writing about his romance with "Satine." Although several reviews refer to Richard Roxburgh's character as the "Duke of Worcester," in the film he is called only "The Duke," and his name appears in written form once as "Duc de Monroth."
The end credits contain a disclaimer noting that while some actual characters, firms and events are depicted, the film is a work of fiction. The real Moulin Rouge, notorious for its can-can dancers and sexually suggestive atmosphere, was owned by Charles Zidler and his partner Joseph Oller, and opened in Montmartre on October 6, 1889. Artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), perhaps best known for his portraits of the club's entertainers, has been portrayed in other films, including the 1953 production Moulin Rouge, which is otherwise unrelated to the 2001 film (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1951-60). Mme Fromage, Le Petomane and Le Chocolat were real performers at the club. The film's presskit notes that the character Satie is "based on a loose mix between" unorthodox composers Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel.
The end credits also include a card thanking Met Chandon Champagne. According to a November 2000 article in Brill's Content, Susan Safier, the vice-president of Product Placement, persuaded Met Chandon "to provide a large supply [of their champagne] and also got the company to reproduce vintage labels-at its own expense-which the film's production staff then used to replace the real ones."
According to a June 2001 Movieline article, Luhrmann originally considered casting Heath Ledger as Christian, but after conducting several screen tests of Ledger with Nicole Kidman, decided that he was too young for the role. Both Kidman and Ewan McGregor made their singing debuts in the film, and in the film's presskit, McGregor credited the extensive four-month rehearsal process with aiding his ability to feel comfortable singing in front of the cameras during actual production. According to the presskit, in order to obtain the best vocal performances from the actors, Luhrmann allowed them either to lip-sync to their own pre-recordings, or to sing live during shooting, accompanied by a guide track or a live keyboardist. The picture marked the screen debuts of Australian actors Caroline O'Connor and Matthew Whittet.
Numerous news items and magazine articles chronicled injuries suffered by Kidman, which delayed filming, including a twice-broken rib caused by being lifted in the dance sequences while wearing a tight corset, and torn knee cartilage resulting from a fall during the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" production number. According to an interview for EW.com, Leguizamo approximated Toulouse-Lautrec's short stature through the use of "amputee prostheses with movable ankles and feet. His real feet and lower legs were erased with computer special effects." In several interviews, Leguizamo mentioned that the prostheses, which weighed approximately forty pounds each, were painful to wear and caused his legs to go numb.
In the picture, song lyrics are often used as dialogue to propel the story. According to added content on the film's special 2-disc DVD release, composer Craig Armstrong explained that the film's story "is constructed around the choice of the songs." It took Luhrmann two years to obtain the rights to the songs used in the extensive music score, according to a May 6, 2001 Los Angeles Times article. In The Times (London) review, it was reported that Luhrmann obtained the rights for free from artists eager to participate in the unusual project, although an 18 June 2001People article stated that the director paid Courtney Love, widow of songwriter Kurt Cobain, $125,000 to use the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The article also reported that Luhrmann originally had the song recorded by Marilyn Manson, but when Love objected, was forced to re-record it with an "unknown" band shortly before the picture's premiere. No artist is listed as performing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the onscreen credits. The only music to which Luhrmann could not obtain the rights were songs written by the Rolling Stones and "Father and Son," composed by Cat Stevens, who, because of his religious beliefs, objected to the film's subject matter. According to Armstrong, after the filmmakers were unable to use "Father and Son," they decided to use "Nature Boy," which is sung at both the opening and ending of the film, and is used as "Christian's theme." "Toulouse's" big line during the production of Spectacular, Spectacular-"the greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return"-is a lyric from "Nature Boy."
In numerous interviews, Luhrmann described Moulin Rouge! as the third in his "Red Curtain" trilogy, which began with the Australian Strictly Ballroom (1992) and continued with William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996). On the Moulin Rouge official website, Luhrmann explained that his "Red Curtain" films employ a heightened sense of theatricality, through the use of music, language, dance or other devices, and are based on an underlying, primary myth. The myth Luhrmann utilized for Moulin Rouge! was that of Orpheus, who descended into the underworld in search of his lost love but returned alone. (Several times during the film, the inhabitants of the Moulin Rouge are referred to as "creatures of the underworld.") In added material prepared for the film's DVD, Luhrmann called his "Red Curtain" films "audience participation cinema," and elaborated that the aim is constantly to remind the audience that they are involved in the process of watching a movie. Reviewers commented that the film's plot was also reminiscent of Alexandre Dumas' novel La Dame aux camlias (1848) and Giuseppe Verdi's opera La traviata (1853).
In several interviews, Martin, Luhrmann's wife and frequent collaborator, commented on the film's complicated art and costume design. Fabrics from around the world were used for the over four hundred costumes in the picture. Hand-beading and embroidery for some of the costumes was done in India, while some costumes were imported from Italy. Martin and Luhrmann commented in several sources that the film's "look" was inspired by "classic film divas" such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth; Hollywood musicals such as Folies Bergere, Meet Me in St. Louis and Cabaret; and the frequently extravagent "Bollywood" musicals from India.
In designing the Moulin Rouge, Martin had access to blueprints for a planned 1902 renovation of the real nightclub, according to a May 2001 Entertainment Design Magazine article. One of the film's most elaborate sets is the three-story, papier-mach elephant that contains Satine's boudoir. The elephant is based on a building in the garden of the real Moulin Rouge, which housed an Arabian-themed gentlemen's club. According to the picture's presskit, several different sets of the elephant were built, including a full-scale elephant on a steel frame. The real Moulin Rouge was acclaimed for its at-the-time novel use of electricity, and in the presskit, director of photography Donald M. McAlpine stated that he attempted to reproduce the presumed effect of electric lights on the patrons by using "heightened lighting as befits the Moulin Rouge: all glamour." The color design of the picture was inspired by the colors used in the actual paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, according to the presskit, as well as Luhrmann's desire for a "super-saturated" Technicolor look. According to UrbanCinefile.com, the filmmakers originally planned to use only thirty special effects shots, but wound up with over three hundred in order to accommodate the many 3D models and miniatures. The film was shot entirely on soundstages in Sydney and Madrid and features no exterior locations.
Although the film was originally set to open in December 2000, the release date was delayed until May 2001. According to October 2000 Hollywood Reporter and Los Angeles Times news items, Fox decided to give Luhrmann extra time for the complicated post-production. In April 2001, Entertainment Weekly reported that Luhrmann had been unable to complete filming in time for the Christmas release, due to complications such as Kidman's injuries and the need to vacate their soundstages in Sydney, which were required by another production. According to the article, "Luhrmann eventually picked up his missing shots in Madrid last fall."
Vogue, which had anticipated that the film would be released near Christmas 2000, featured Kidman on the cover of its December 2000 issue, and included a lengthy article about the picture's fashions. In mid-April 2000, Vogue hosted a preview screening of the film, in conjunction with a specially commissioned fashion show. According to a September 6, 2001 Hollywood Reporter review, Luhrmann's efforts to publicize the film became the focus of a BBC television documentary entitled The Show Must Go On. The documentary, directed by Adrian Sibley, followed Luhrmann for four months, beginning with the Cannes Film Festival, which celebrated its opening night with the premiere of Moulin Rouge!. In August 2001, Parade announced that Luhrmann was considering adapting the film for the stage. The picture was given a theatrical re-release in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and San Francisco on 21 November 2001.
Moulin Rouge! was included in many top ten lists and was named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review. The film was nominated by AFI as Movie of the Year. In addition, Jill Bilcock received the AFI award as Editor of the year and Craig Armstrong received AFI's Composer of the year. The picture won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy and Best Score, and Kidman won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy. Luhrmann and McGregor received individual Golden Globe nominations. The picture's main love song, "Come What May," also garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for composer David Baerwald. Moulin Rouge! also won Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. The film won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design and was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Picture, Best Sound and Best Actress, for Kidman.