CANNES, France -- A glamorous setting. A star in distress.
Elements that can make the Cannes Film Festival about everything but film fell into place when Nicole Kidman came to the French Riviera.
"Moulin Rouge," the audacious musical she carries as a can-can girl who wants to be an actress, opened the festival, which closes today, and will debut in Baltimore June 1. Kidman's real-life story is now playing in a tabloid near you.
Despite personal turmoil, she smiled, smiled, smiled during the movie's three-day barnstorming here.
"It's hard," she said in an interview at her $1,500-a-night hotel overlooking the Mediterranean. "But this is what I do. It's my job. It is a strange existence, but I look forward to just winding down. This is only a small section of my life."
Her husband, Tom Cruise, recently filed for divorce. She said in a counter-petition that she was trying to keep the marriage together. She suffered a miscarriage. Then a gay adult film actor claimed he'd had sex with Cruise, prompting the "Mission Impossible" star to sue him for $100 million. The news re-ignited speculation about the nature of Kidman and Cruise's relationship. The couple has two adopted children, Connor and Isabella.
Sitting with hands folded and punctuating her words with nervous giggles, the 33-year-old Kidman said, "I just don't want to get into it. There's the legality of it, and there's the privacy issue. It's between Tom and myself and the kids."
Misery's promotional value
It is extremely uncool to acknowledge that an actor's private woes can help promote a movie. And neither "Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann nor cast members dared, beyond praising Kidman's soldiering through under such scrutiny. As at Cannes, her demeanor remained publicly sunny through interview blitzes back home in Los Angeles, where her lawyers recently filed for a restraining order against a stalker.
"I don't know how she does it," said Richard Roxburgh, who plays a duke in "Moulin Rouge." "To go through what she's been through and be so chipper -- it's inspiring."
Meanwhile, her departure from the Cote d'Azur left a void in the film festival's second week. Jean-Luc Godard packed in the home crowd. David Lynch tweaked cinema-saturated minds. But only Kidman received sympathy, praise, adoration and the kind of interest that had people gossiping from the Croisette to smoky brasseries in Antibes.
The festival thinks it is above the salacious. It thinks wrong.
Not that such publicity hurts a movie, especially a risky venture like "Moulin Rouge." Kidman said the industry's respect for Luhrmann eased her anxiety over singing and dancing for the first time on screen. The 5-foot-11 Kidman is long of limb and admittedly clumsy. "Baz wanted my gawkiness to come through in terms of physical comedy," she said.
The movie takes place in Paris' Moulin Rouge nightclub in 1899. The music, though, is contemporary, lending more intriguing spectacle to Luhrmann's over-the-top "red-curtain" style. Imagine an opera choreographed by Busby Berkeley and set to tunes such as "Like a Virgin" and "I Will Always Love You."
Wildly mixed reviews
Luhrmann, whose artifice gilded "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," believes he has created "audience-participation cinema." But who knows whether Peoria will want to take part. The reviews on the French Riviera were wildly mixed.
"There's such an extreme reaction, which is not unusual for me because the directors I choose to work with are extremists," said Kidman. "I think they're visionaries. They have huge supporters and huge detractors."
In "Moulin Rouge," Kidman plays Satine, a Moulin Rouge dancer who dreams of being Sarah Bernhardt. She falls for a lowly writer (Ewan McGregor), mistaking him for a duke she must seduce so the club can secure financing for a musical that could launch her career. Will she give herself to the sniveling aristocrat and betray her beloved? Do you think the world has had enough of silly love songs? (That Paul McCartney ditty is in the soundtrack, too.)
Kidman sang "Nobody Does It Better" in a private audition for Luhrmann. Then she performed a duet with McGregor because Luhrmann wanted to measure the chemistry.
"We agreed we would allow each other to be as embarrassing as we could be," McGregor said.
They kept their bargain through the filming. Not that they had a choice. Luhrmann's script has them bursting into song at the tug of a heartstring. They do not wink. Luhrmann wanted to deliver the sentiment to viewers with the force of a right cross to the jaw. He wanted the performers who relay those emotions to be unlikely vehicles.
"One of my functions is to release sides of an actor you don't normally see," he said.
ABBA and autographs
Kidman paid the price for their art. She cracked a rib in a dance sequence with McGregor and hurt it again later in the shooting. She also tore cartilage in her knee. Performing elaborate numbers in 3-inch heels couldn't have helped.
"Being Australian, I like to think of myself as physically quite tough," she said.
Kidman is proving to be emotionally quite tough, too, at least in public.
Her sister Antonia flew in from Australia to lend moral support, but Kidman did not play the fragile flower. On opening night she stepped down from the red-carpeted stairs of the Palais des Festivals to interact with fans. Publicists and security guards looked surprised.
"I remember being at an airport as a kid when ABBA came, and they just walked right past," Kidman said. "It's nice to get out and shake people's hands and sign a few autographs. It doesn't cost you much."
What goes on in her private life is nobody's business, of course. But many public figures make the mistake of taking that assumption at face value and shutting out the very people who keep their careers going.
As painful as life may be right now, Kidman realizes she can still play a movie star.
"I'm in a position where I'm being asked a lot of questions, and it's a bit weird," she said, "but it will be over soon."