Dir: Baz Luhrmann. Australia/US. 2001. 124 min

Aussie wonder boy Baz Luhrmann continues to break rules and to shock in his new tragi-comic musical, Moulin Rouge his most audaciously innovative feature to date. Like his stylized dance melodrama Strictly Ballroom and his postmodern Shakespearean adaptation, Romeo + Juliet, the new musical, which is set at the turn of the century Paris and stars Nicole Kidman, creates a heightened creative world that aggressively defies historical authenticity and the established traditions of Hollywood musicals. Fox's $55m summer release, which received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, represents a risky gamble that may not pay off domestically since it's distributed as counter-programming to Pearl Harbour and the season's other top guns. However, stronger performance in foreign territories, particularly Europe, should help recoup the budget and elaborate marketing campaign for what's essentially an arthouse picture.

With three movies to his credit, there's no doubt that enfant terrible Luhrmann is a visionary and experimental director intrigued by refurbishing old genres with new life by reinventing their conventions, turning them upside down and inside out. In Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann has also redefined the filmmaker's role, transforming him into a magician with a hatful of resplendent tricks, meant to transport the viewers into a uniquely cinematic land that disdains naturalism and embraces expressionism.

Moulin Rouge is the third in Luhrmann's "Red Curtain Trilogy" of mood-swinging, consciously theatrical, aggressively stylized movies. It's a mode that adopts the stage's fake artifice, creating a theatricalized cinema that asks the audience to look at reality through the filmmaker's subjective vision -- and primal mythology.

This latest amalgamation is inspired by two literary sources: The myth of Orpheus, in which the poet visits Hades to rescue his lover, but loses her forever, and Alexander Dumas' famous play, Lady of the Camellias, turned into Verdi's Bel Canto opera, La Traviata, and filmed by George Cukor as Garbo's best-known vehicle, Camille.

Most of the action is set within the notorious club, which Luhrmann views as a microcosm of Parisian society circa 1900, the epitome of moral and sexual decadence. Visually and thematically, the club is a blend of the cabaret in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (with Marlene Dietrich), Liza Minnelli's performance space in Bob Fosse's Cabaret, and precursor of the infamous Studio 54 at the height of its 1970s popularity.

Aiming to resurrect the movie musical, a genre that has been in severe decline - if not practically dead -- over the past three decades, Luhrmann has boldly decided to mix various types of music, often within the same scene. Indeed, every form is quoted, from breakout into song to using the music as a kind of Greek chorus to operatic tunes to music videos. While the narrative is set in an 1899 Paris, the performers sing songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Elton John, David Bowie, Sting, and Madonna.

The yarn doesn't waste much time on exposition. The first sequence (about 20 minutes) represents a harrowing sensory assault, depicting Montmartre with an unbalancing blend of film stock, digital effects, and film speeds. All the major characters, themes, and conflicts are introduced, letting the audience know exactly how the tale's going to end. Rather shrewdly, Luhrmann employs Christian (Ewan McGregor) in two different roles: as a young idealistic writer and as narrator/commentator of the story, which is deliberately situated in heightened creative world that bursts with visual and musical fireworks.

Nicole Kidman plays a can-can dancer named Satine with serious stage ambitions and a severe case of consumption. She's the jewel for hire, a courtesan of poor origins who's adopted the club and its inhabitants as her family. Consistent with his anachronistic conception, Kidman boasts a long red hair, shapely legs that are often exposed, and an overtly sexual persona that approximate Rita Hayworth in her 40s pictures, specifically the erotic meller Gilda and noirish The Lady from Shanghai. While Kidman's persona makes explicit references to Hayworth's movies, there are also touches of Monroe, particularly in her rendition of "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend."

Satine is surrounded by three men who aspire to control her fate, each pushing her in a different direction. Christian is a bohemian revolutionary, an Orpheus who descends into the hell of the club's perverted underworld, and falls head over heels for Satine. He's contrasted with Satine's influential admirer, the oily Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who stands for the philistines.

The most brilliantly conceived figure is the pathetic, desperate, but also human club impresario Zidler (Topsy Turvy's Jim Broadbent), who looks a bit like Emil Janings in Blue Angel and embodies some of Joel Grey's dubious characteristics in Cabaret. Zidler has convinced the count to finance his new show, Spectacular Spectacular, to be written by Christian.

In the background stands the painter Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), who functions as an observer but doesn't occupy the centre in the way that he did in John Huston's earnest Freudian biopicture, Moulin Rouge, that featured a suffering Jose Ferrer in the lead.

The movie's most controversial dimension is its freebasing of the entire twentieth century, referencing a variety of pop tunes. The diverse soundtrack and intentionally anachronistic style will exhilarate some while irritate others. For example, lyrics to "All You Need Is Love" turn up as dialogue, and the Police's "Roxanne" is reshaped as a dance-floor tango with a techno backbeat. The movie also exhibits influences from Bollyhood, the Indian school of filmmaking that mixes melodramatic plots, existential philosophy, and ostentatious dance numbers.

The signature theme (heard in two versions, one by David Bowie, the other a Bowie/Massive Attack duet) is the old Eden Ahbez's, "Nature Boy," popularized by Nat King Cole, whose key lyrics serves as the picture's mantra: All you'll ever learn is to love/and be loved in return

Structured as a spectacle within spectacle, the Parisian -- and contemporary -- audiences become complicit in a tale about beauty, freedom, deceit, and above all, love, to mention the story's most dominant symbols.

The film's detractors will have hard time dismissing it as just a crazy quilt of imagery inspired by music videos. As a convention-free musical, Moulin Rouge creates its own heightened world, employing far-flung visual techniques. Unlike other musicals, in which the songs often arrest the plot, here, story and song are integrated, moving forward together and supporting each other.

Though relying on a wealth of period detail, this Moulin Rouge is certainly not a tastefully refined Merchant-Ivory costume drama. In its dauntless visual strokes and unbridled imagination, Luhrmann goes way beyond Terry Gilliam's wildest fantasies. Ultimately, though, what makes the story touching is the splendid cast, headed by a dazzling Kidman, who acts better than she sings, and McGregor, who excels in both departments.

Pro co: A Fox presentation of a Bazmark production

W'wide dist: 20th Century Fox

Prods: Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann, Fred Baron

Scr: Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

Cinematographer: Donald M. M