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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "MOULIN ROUGE!"

In the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series we look at pre-selected movies and name what we think of as the best (or at least our favorite) shot. Anyone can play along and we link up. Next wednesday's topic is Fritz Lang's noir "The Woman in the Window".

But tonight, we celebrate Baz Luhrmann's "Spectacular! Spectacular!" which went wide on US screens ten years ago on this very day.


She suddenly had a terrible desire to go to a priest."

We begin with a confession.

Though I was an early veritably possessed cheerleader for Moulin Rouge! since I beheld its genius on opening night at the Ziegfeld theater in NYC, though I saw it five times in the movie theater (a post '80s personal record), and though I named it Best of the Aughts when the decade wrapped, I hadn't actually sat down and watched Moulin Rouge! in full for at least five years. This wasn't intentional. I wrote about the movie so often from 2001 to 2005 that at some point I just put it on the shelf, afraid of breaking its spell. I worried, sitting down in the dark, the remote far from me as if I were back in the temple of the movie theater, 'would it still thrill?'

A silly question it was. From the first frames I was swept up. By the time Zidler and his diamond dogs came rushing at the camera (best shot!?!), a chaotic swishing mess of vibrant color, sexual promise and mashed-up music, I forgot to take any notes at all. By the time Satine, the sparkling diamond, descended from the ceiling onto the dance floor, I had completely blanked on the the "best shot" assignment. So, returning to skim again today, a decision: I would only choose a shot from the film's second half, which I haven't written as much about.

Moulin Rouge! famously borrows, sometimes with song and other times visually, from dozens of famous musicals but it's comic/tragic masks are not unlike the work of the great Stephen Sondheim. In many of Sondheim's most famous musicals, he starts out light and comic and you leave the theater at intermission for fresh air that you don't even need since you're already walking on it. Within seconds of returning to your seat, he's out to crush your heart. Into the Woods provides a famous and literal example: the first act, which is a play on famous fairy tales, ends with the "ever after" part. When you return for the second act you're left to wonder what comes next and that "happily ever after" part sure turns out to be a false bill of goods.

And so it goes with Christian and Satine's romance, which comes on, like the whole of Moulin Rouge!, in a heady hallucinatory rush of color, comedy and eroticism and then dives straight into tragedy after the (literal) romantic fireworks. Consider the juxtaposition of the shots above, one when Christian sings "I-I-I-I-I-I will always love you" (best shot!?!) and Satine is fully on board" and the much later shot of Satine, realizing she has to give Satine up singing "today's the day when dreaming ends" (best shot?!?) which she sings with her eyes glassy, not really looking at the caged bird sharing the frame, who we already know she feels a kinship towards (Someday I'll Fly Away). Both shots are audaciously clichéd, but that's how Moulin Rouge! plays it, boldly throwing ALL tropes at you and daring you to not reembrace them in a fresh dizzying form.

Zidler himself precipitates this vacant "you're dying"/ 'I'm already dead' staring and the longer I live with the movie the richer the Zidler/Satine relationship becomes. So for the moment, and there are roughly 100,000 shots worthy of the name "best" in the film, this is the one that absolutely kills. A slow cold zoom out on Zidler performing Zidler as The Maharaja (aka also the Duke) claiming Satine all over again. It drains the last life from our heroine. Art is imitating life and then life will imitate the art again.

She is mine. She is mine."

The cinematography by Donald McAlpine which so deserved the Oscars that year (sorry LotR), loves to shoot Nicole Kidman with blue light whenever she is bereft of love. Even in the "Elephant Love Medley" when she's first resisting Ewan McGregor she's lit in blue while he is glowing with warmer light right behind him. By the end of "Spectacular! Spectacular!", beginning with the exact moment when she coughs on stage, all the hot pink light which had been battling it out with the blue, vanishes to leave her like this.

She is mine. She is mine."

She always was... Zidler's that is. Christian was never able to steal her away, only playing with her in her gilded cage for that Summer of Love, 1899.

Madonna's classic "Like a Virgin" number is only used comically in the film, to mock the prostitute/john Satine/Duke relationship. But it could just as well have been used dramatically, with Satine in Christian's arms; thawed out, shiny and new. This beloved movie, ten years familiar, can still touch you for the very first time. It hasn't lost a drop of heart or magic in a decade's time. 


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Reader Comments (30)

My entry is here:
Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Moulin Rouge

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Here's my contribution. I made up a Tumblr account just so i could do this. :)

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck

Hwy, I tried to submit this via Twitter but I guess I didn't get it in on time! Or maybe I just didn't do it right. (Should we e-mail it?) Here's my submission:

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFaith

I just want to be clear that Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady deserves a royalty every time Moulin Rouge! or any other film has Kidman crying in blue-filtered light.

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Nick -- point taken. I'm sure that Jane & Baz worked something out ;)

everyone -- i updated with your entries -- thanks for playing along.

June 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Still my favorite movie ever.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

This movie imagery is so reminiscent of Lola Montés! In this trailer you can find identical shots: The blue filter thing, for example, comes straight from this shot: Even the costumes are the almost the same.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Did anyone else get the vibe that she was his daughter? Red hair and all, or am I just nuts?

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Any 'best shot' for me would be any number of close-ups of Ewan McGregor, but it's really hard to pick a single one.

I could pick the moment he bursts out singing the Sound of Music:

or the moment(s) when his face turns into a smile as he sings Your Song:

or any number of close-ups of him during The Elephant Love Medley or Come What May, or the scene where Christian begs Satine not to sleep with the Duke:

or from the scene when he comforts Satine and tells her they can just leave, he doesn't care about the show:

'Thank you for curing me of my ridiculous obsession with love':

Or the Singing in the Rain moment (which I definitely don't think was an accident on Baz Lurhmann's part, re: Cheap Seat Reviews):

Egads. Sorry for the length of the post and the plethora of links.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

Thanks for reminding me Nathaniel. It's one of my all-time favorite, maybe even on the top of the list. I can watch it again and again and the moment McGregor started singing 'Your Song' out loud always stunned me. Long live Satine and Christian!

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChamp

Sean, I've always thought that (pathetically, I've written fanfic about it - someday I will grow up.)

You tortured me Nat - I had to wait until this morning to see it! I love that you mentioned the second half of the film since you haven't written enough about that part (hint hint). This is one of my favorite shots as well, one I used watch again and again - there is something about the way her head droops to the side a little as his arms close around her that I love. (I also notice in the final cut-away to the wide-shot from this before the curtain closes, you can see Broadbent moving his left hand down from her breast to someplace a bit lower than that. I've always been amused to imagine what caused that to happen.)

I know a lot of people who love the comedy of the film's first half, I'm one of those who always gravitated toward the drama and tragedy (I can't count how many times I've watched the Roxanne sequence.) I also loved the lovers interlude in the middle section (the original script had a longer "pastoral" section away from Paris, a la La Dame Aux Camilias.)

Nick - I thought I was crazy when I first noticed that, but then again Baz is stealing from all over the damn place and could easily spend the entire budget of Australia if he had to pay royalties to everyone and everything he stole from for this film.

Speaking of, I was watching the first 2/3rds of Metropolis yesterday (upgraded to higher-speed internet and WOW! Everything looks superb on Netflix), and in the scene where the robot-Maria is dancing before the crowd of wealthy men in tuxedos, exciting their lust and passion to murderous/suicidal ends, I couldn't help wonder if that was yet another "steal" on Baz's part, or at least a distant nod to Metropolis - or if I'm really reading too much into things here?

I also started rewatching MR yesterday for the first time in years - I had also put it on my shelf, Nathaniel, after wearing it out. Was trying out the new high-speed internet on Netflix, and I got just past the "Your Song" sequence but - again, WOW. So much color and detail I swear I never noticed before, so much grime and dust, so many sequins...I couldn't take it all in, and it was liking seeing it new. Then my heart began pounding during the Zidler's Rap/Lady Marmalade sequence, I think I finally understood then why it's probably my "favorite" movie (most watched) even as I know damn well it's not the best movie. It's the adrenaline rush, the pounding heartbeat that Baz creates that makes you damn well believe you've fallen in love with this thing, as if recreating the very feeling of falling in love with another person (as opposed to the hard work of being in a long-term relationship, which in fact Christian and Satine manage to avoid, if tragically so.)

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Cal thanks for pointing that out - I haven't seen Lola Montes since college (Max Ophuls was not a filmmaker who got written about much at the time, somewhat like a European Douglas Sirk); and it was on a very tiny screen at the college library, so I'd forgotten any resemblances. I remember Martine Carol gives a curiously lifeless performance (for such a vibrant real-life person) but Peter Ustinov's ringleader (entirely fictional, btw) was easily the best performance in the film for me, although his role is relatively small.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Still my fav film everrrrr!!

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRizal

I was not a fan of Moulin Rouge the first time I saw it, although that might have been due to a number of factors. Despite eagerly anticipating the film like few others before or since, I never got to see it in theatres - it opened at a really busy time for me (the end of my Junior year of High School) and the one night I could actually go I couldn't find anyone to go with me, so I didn't go. I still hate going to the movies alone, but have done it enough times when I've realized it's the only way to see a certain movie that it bothers me less than it did. So I finally saw it when it came out on DVD, with my family, including grandparents. They couldn't get over the frantic first fifteen minutes. I remember being put off by the tonal discord of that first sequence (basically until "Your Song") and the rest of the film, but liked a great deal of it, even if I didn't love it.

Then, Oscar nominations. I had to see it again. This time, I fell in love. Deep, abiding, rapturous love. For everything about it. It was never my pick for Best Picture (LotR fanboy here - saw Fellowship three times in the theater!), but I still say Nicole was robbed for Best Actress and Jim Broadbent's win that year was for the wrong film. I actually still fall into giddy paroxysms of laughter whenever I think about Moulin Rouge, it makes me so happy. The rush of the first half of the movie is so much like the actual feeling of falling in love that it makes me fall in love with it, every damn time I see it. Baz Luhrmann, you freaking genius. Now hurry up, forget the 3-D thing, and make The Great Gatsby into the film it deserves!

Best shot? No contest. Though the best sequence is the Tango de Roxanne, the best shot is that last shot of the Elephant Love Medley, where the camera swirls around Christian and Satine as they sing their love and fireworks and birds and the singing moon and - sigh - that shot is what falling in love feels like. It's gorgeous.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

denny -- it's funny how many people had that reaction to moulin rouge! at first... the head scratching and then the love. what's maybe even crazier is that even if you were besotted the first time it only gets worse.

so in a way, Baz is not only a genius but a cruel god for denying us films so regularly. I wish I was excited about The Great Gatsby but since it's my favorite novel... and since I don't like the casting and since he chose it over doing his other idea (an original musical) i can't say that i'm very pleased at the moment. Plus, I fucking hate 3D. My hatred keeps on growing. It's just so distracting -- and i don't even mind wearing glasses but it's so unecessary in all ways.

June 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

When Kidman's lips looked normal and she - fascinatingly beautiful; now when she smiles in interviews, sometimes I'm a little afraid of focusing on her mouth.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I didn't pick a best shot, but I did write a column about the 10th anniversary of Moulin Rouge!:

I can't remember, Nathaniel, were you part of the Cinemarati group that went to see La Bohème on Broadway back in the day?

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

I also did not love Moulin Rouge the first time I saw it. And my problem was twofold: the frantic editing of the first 15 minutes, and Ewan McGregor's characterization of Christian (add to this the limited vocal prowess of both leads and you have a problem). But on second viewing I was swept away by the lusciousness of the movie, and how intense it is. As to McGregor, I have always thought that he looks (and in his acting choices, behaves) way too young in the movie to be a credible suitor to Satine (as others have said, Kidman’s characterization is top in that movie). But now I don’t even notice this.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Kevin - i was yes. I met you there!

Pedro -- but isn't that part of his charm. That he is so boyish that she lets down her guard?

June 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I remember picking up the American Cinematographer magazine that featured Moulin Rouge! on the cover. McAlpine actually discussed the lighting for this particular scene and I was absolutely unaware of all that had to happen to make films look pretty. The design of this stage alone, should've won him every award out there, regardless of the damned cute hobbits and all!
It's even more impressive when you think that besides this stage, he also had to light and work with the stage where the stage is! This movie is all sorts of meta-awesome!

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Super late addition, although this is more of a blog post about the movie than a best shot entry, but

Also, Moulin Rouge is screening at the Yonge and Dundas Square at July 19. It is the worst place to watch a movie, since the lights everywhere makes you feel like you're watching the movie and commercials at the same time, but it's still a big screen, and everyone who goes to this stuff likes it.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Did my post disappear? :( Oh well. I don't have a website to participate with but if I were to choose a favorite shot it would be one of any number of Ewan McGregor close-ups: the moment when he first bursts into song (singing 'The Sound of Music'), the moment his face turns into a smile while singing 'Your Song,' the moment he's stopped by Nicole Kidman singing 'Come What May' at the end, etc. When I think of this movie, I think primarily of Ewan McGregor's face, which puts me in a minority I guess.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

jessica -- i agree that his face, it's openness and the purity of emotion he can conjure is a huge reason why the movie works at all. The smile during YOUR SONG is bliss.

June 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Jessica - actually, there are lots of women (and Ewan-fangirls) right along with you. I suspect you just happen to be in the minority at this (actress-centric, Nicole-loving) site. Although Nat does love him some Ewan, too. As do we all. (If you've ever gone to the MR section of - not that I'm recommending you do, btw - far and away the majority are devoted to Christian alone after Satine's death, or the couple together.)

Pedro - I had a similar reaction in terms of hating it (or not sure how I felt about the mess I just saw) then seeing it a second time and falling intensely in love; rewatching the beginning the other day, I couldn't help thinking for the first time that Ewan actually looked a little too old to be a naive 24-yr old (if that's how old Christian is meant to be); but since he's so good in the role I can't imagine anyone else having that chemistry with Kidman than him. (Baz mentioned Jake Gyllanhaal and Heath Ledger as having been in the running but both being "too young" and, I think more to the point, not well-known enough. It can't have hurt that Ewan was just coming off Star Wars, piece of s**t that it was.) But he conjures up boyishness beautifully in the red room and atop the elephant and any question of age disappears in my mind (it's really less a difference of presumed ages of the characters than class differences, their lifestyles and upbringings anyway.)

Jose - very cool, must have been an interesting read. I recall seeing a website of a company in Australia that built some of the technical effects, and the designer's description of how he created that heart-shaped device that elevates Satine from beneath the stage and this number, and how it nearly wasn't used, etc. I think that this movie could have used several more (exhaustive) featurettes just on the technical aspects alone along the lines of ones made for the LoTR's DVD's.

"She always was... Zidler's that is. Christian was never able to steal her away, only playing with her in her gilded cage for that Summer of Love, 1899."

Nat I'm rereading this post and I really love that sentence, because you've said it in a way that no one has really quite done, and even I hadn't fully realized. That's why I adore when you write about this movie, you make me see what I think I saw 1000 times in new ways. (Hmm, now I'm sounding like a creepy stalker fan...?) I'm jealous that you saw it five times at the theaters. I wish I'd seen it once on the big screen.) I still had to stop when I read that McAlpine didn't win the Oscar - he didn't? WTF? (I had somehow forgotten the MR had only won for set and costume, and apparently awarded them a few more in my mind.) Of course I'm not a LoTR fan, so I may be prejudiced.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Oh yes I meant a minority here, not just on this site but on this thread specifically, not necessarily in the whole world.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

Maybe the Ewan-lovers are in hiding? Or else they're hanging out at the Ewan post above....

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Nathaniel- I don't mind the casting even if I'm not really pleased with it. And, yes, I would have preferred he do the original musical. It's just that, if there was one director who could really make 3-D sing, it would be Baz... I mean, can you imagine if Moulin Rouge had been shot in 3-D? CINEMAGASM! It's just that The Great Gatsby is the absolute WRONG project for it! This is a story that really does NOT need 3-D. It will either serve as a distraction or completely ruin the film. Neither is a particularly appetizing prospect.

And back to Moulin Rouge! (don't you just love that it has the exclamation point in the title?), it all comes down to the Elephant Love Medley. The song itself is constructed perfectly, but you add in the performances of Ewan and Nicole (they really do PERFORM all the songs, instead of just sing them) and those gorgeous camera movements and effects and it's one of the best musical sequences of all time. I just love that it (and the film itself) so deeply feels everything and believes so much in its core principles. I don't think there's been a more deeply felt movie musical ever made.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Denny I'm rewatching MR! in bits this week, and I saw the ELM again this morning for the first time in years (like Nathaniel, I finally had to put my DVD on the shelf at some point), and I feel something very similar to what I feel during the Zidler's Rap/Can-can, but less intensely - my heart beating rather wildly, which makes tons of sense in an action sequence but - during a love song? It's thrilling stuff; the wide visuals, showing the entire courtyard beneath them (wait, can't somebody see or hear them carrying on?), the garden, the Latrec-inspired murals on the wall, the play of blue and red, etc. And of course that inspired duet, his open-heartedness, her reluctant melting, falling in love...All this time later, watching this scene is like falling in love anew.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

My entry:

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSorkin

I am actually working on my blog, searching the net for news on art, and watching Moulin Rouge online all at the same time with my DISHONLINE.COM access. This is available to everyone with their subscription to DISH Network. For more information on how your subscription stacks up to DISH Network travel over to

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelli
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