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Magic in `Moulin Rouge'

CANNES, France -- "With money like this, think what could be done with the Chicago Film Festival!" declared a Cannes Film Festival visitor Wednesday night. I think the visitor was me. I was not referring to the cost of the Cannes festival, but to the cost of the party after the opening night premiere of "Moulin Rouge." There has never been a Cannes party like it - and take it from me, I've seen plenty, including the bash on Roman Polanski's pirate ship.

Nicole Kidman reigned like the queen of cinema over a celebration inside a series of vast circus tents that suggested the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. With authentically worn floorboards, lush velvet walls, revolving stages and disco balls, this was an extravaganza to awe the most decadent festivalgoer. Chefs in toques labored over freshly made omelets and crepes, waiters circled with champagne, and when the can-can girls bounced onto the center stage, even Rupert Murdoch, Lord of All Media, stood on his chair for a better look.

Murdoch owns 20th Century Fox, which produced the movie and paid for this largess. To have your film open the Cannes festival is an honor so unimaginably grand that normally only French films are considered adequate. "Moulin Rouge" tells a story set entirely in Paris in 1900 - but every foot of the film was shot in Murdoch's native Australia, and both Kidman, the star, and Baz Luhrmann, the director, are Aussies. This is like Canada winning the Olympics.

"We have been working on this party for months!" Christian Garcon Funnily Enough shouted in my ear. He advised me to grab a table in the center area, although there would be action everywhere else, too. "I am from Los Angeles," he said, "although I am a Frenchman, funnily enough. My company plans parties like this."

And what is your name? I shouted.

"Christian Garcon Funnily Enough," he shouted back, handing me a card that read "Christian Garcon." (Ask a friend who speaks French to explain this paragraph, which contains a joke, funnily enough.)

The movie struck just the right note to kick off this 54th festival. The post-screening buzz, confirmed by most of the reviews Thursday morning, was that "Moulin Rouge" hit a home run. The hyperkinetic musical tells the story of a doomed romance between a Parisian dance hall girl (Kidman) and a starving writer (Ewan McGregor), who must compete for her charms with a venal duke (Richard Roxburgh). John Leguizamo, using artificial braces to look shorter, plays the dwarfish artist Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jim Broadbent is Zigler, the impresario who knows the dancer's sad secret.

The movie is a tour of a century of style. It has the luridly melodramatic plot of a 19th century opera, the lush color and art direction of a 1950s Hollywood musical, and the frenetic energy of a brand-new music video. On Thursday morning, I motored out to the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, the expensively inconvenient home of the biggest stars at the festival, to interview the principals. They were arrayed in a series of cabanas staggering down toward the sea, and as I marched from one to another I learned:

From Baz Luhrmann, the film's director: "We develop a new cinematic language every 10 years, and today, when every kid has a digital camera and is familiar with the conventions of naturalism, it is time to return to the grander styles of the cinema's past."

From Ewan McGregor, who plays the writer: "It was important that, in the middle of the whirlwind, his character and Kidman's remain focused on the truth of their relationship."

From John Leguizamo, who plays Toulouse-Lautrec: "I walked on artificial legs that were fitted to my knees, to make me 4 feet 11 inches tall, exactly his height. Because Toulouse was born to first cousins, there were a lot of things wrong with him. His tongue was very thick, and he had a high-pitched lisp. His legs were very short. He was, however, unusually well-endowed, which is why his nickname was the Tripod."

An interview with Nicole Kidman was scheduled for after lunch. At the hotel's Eden Roc Restaurant, where Miramax's Harvey Weinstein was table-hopping, there was much talk about whether "middle America" would go for the movie. Also some gloom.

"Do they know what a musical is?" asked one studio rep.

"Do they know where Paris is?" asked another.

"Do they know what Paris is?" asked a third.

My answer to all three questions: They will not have found out from the movies you have been making for them.

After lunch, a seance with the tall and regal Nicole Kidman. "What a party that was," she said. "We partied all night."

You look fresh and relaxed, I said.

"I am an actress."

Soon I was back at my beloved Hotel Splendid. For the price of lunch at the du Cap, one can stay for a week at the Splendid, breakfast included. The hotel, alas, is not in a serene location, but located directly across the street from the beach with the giant party tents. On the stairs I ran into Ken Turan, film critic of the Los Angeles Times.

"Grumble, grumble," he said.

Are you grumbling?

"Do you know how late that 'Moulin Rouge' party lasted last night?" he asked. "I'll tell you. It lasted until 4 a.m."

You were there until the end?

"I never left my room."

It was loud, we agreed, but not as loud as three years ago, when an Austin Powers billboard was erected directly beneath our windows, and broadcast the cackles of a sneering villain 24 hours a day. It takes men of steel to cover the festival. You can't just sit around on your tripod.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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