"Madame Moulin Life is "surreal" for Nicole Kidman. Her bold new movie musical is even more so"

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A moment of silence, please, for mrs. tom cruise. for a decade she served with honors as a celebrity wife. She made her own films when schedules permitted and appeared alongside her husband in Days of Thunder (the 1990 race-car flick on which they met), Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut. Clasping Cruise's hand, she walked miles of red carpet. She was always at his side, raising two children, suing the tabloids. She will be missed. Last February Cruise announced that their marriage was coming to an end. "It was a big shock for me," says the woman who must now reinvent herself as, simply, Nicole Kidman. Still, she isn't grieving for her former life. Despite a miscarriage last month and scandalous allegations surrounding their high-stakes divorce (Was he too devoted to Scientology? Was she too devoted to another man?), Kidman is out in force these days promoting Moulin Rouge, the musical slated to kick off the Cannes Film Festival this week (and open in Australia on May 24).

"It's surreal," says Kidman, 33. "I did have a miscarriage, and I'm still coping with that." As for the divorce, "there are two kids involved, and the press is not the place to play it out I could have said, 'I'm not doing any press for this film. See ya later. I'm not coming out until I am completely healed.' But I don't know if that will ever happen." In hindsight, is it so surprising that the couple didn't last? She was only 23 when they married. Since then, she has tried to define herself-and has succeeded in charming the critics-by working with fiercely independent directors like Gus Van Sant (To Die For) and Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady) and appearing onstage in David Hare's The Blue Room.

Yet while Cruise's spotlight has brought her fame, her career has been dwarfed by their marriage. Her forays into commercial movies, such as Practical Magic, have usually fallen short. Kidman admits without bitterness that "most of my choices were based around somebody else's schedule." The big question: Is she a star or merely a jettisoned planet in search of a new solar system? The answer may be found in two summer movies. The Others, coming from Miramax's Dimension Films in August, could turn out to be the season's horror sleeper. But first comes a far more out-there project, Moulin Rouge. When it starts hitting U.S. theaters May 18, the musical will probably have both critics and audiences debating whether it is art or just arty, and who knows if it can compete with the summer blockbuster bullies. This much is certain: you've never seen anything like it. Directed by Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet), Moulin Rouge is a postmodern, absinthe-fueled journey through the titular Parisian nightclub at the birth of the 20th century, set to mid- and late-20th century pop songs. Kidman stars as Satine, the doomed, ambitious courtesan torn between a penniless writer (Ewan McGregor) and a sugar-daddy duke (Richard Roxburgh). "She sings, she dances, she dies, she's funny," says Luhrmann. "You can't get more tested than that."

The test began two years ago during the last act of her marriage. Kidman was on Broadway, starring in The Blue Room, when flowers from Luhrmann, an old Aussie acquaintance, arrived in her dressing room. "I'd never got a box of long-stemmed red roses," she recalls, beaming at the memory. "The card said, 'I've got a great character for you,' but then he made me audition."

When the play closed, Kidman got on a plane to Sydney. "Luckily I have a house there, and Tom was there shooting [the sequel to] Mission: Impossible," she says. "It all seemed somehow to work out." For months the Moulin cast toiled (free of charge, according to Kidman, before 20th Century Fox gave the movie the go-ahead) in workshops at Luhrmann's Sydney headquarters, a rambling old mansion (and a former insane asylum). Everyone got into the spirit of the film. Kidman recalls treating herself to absinthe at Luhrmann's dinner table and dancing with a snake at the director's millennial New Year's Eve party. But even the stars occasionally had a hard time envisioning the movie Luhrmann wanted to make. "There were times when Ewan and I doubted him," says Kidman. "We'd think, There's no way he's going to make this high comedy work with tragedy. But you do it because you want to be in something that's a risk."

Kidman found her singing voice quickly ("there was a real sweetness of tone from the outset," says musical director Marius De Vries), but her dancing was sometimes more Gerald Ford than Ginger Rogers. During rehearsal, Kidman broke a rib and spent weeks recovering at home in Sydney. While Cruise tended to her ("he was very good to me," she says), Kidman spent the downtime on her sofa rehearsing songs. Near the end of production, she tore cartilage in her knee while shooting the Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend number.

"I think I'm stronger than I am, that's my problem," says Kidman, who kept working with steroids and painkillers. "My ex-husband used to say, 'You think you're physically strong, but get real. You're not.'" She cites an example: "There was a paparazzo in London who was horrible to us. He flashed in my kids' faces, and I was like, 'Listen, man! Back off!' Tom said, 'He could kick your butt.' I said, 'No! I could kick his!' Tom said, 'Get real, Nicole. You'd be flat on your back.'" He had a point. Months after she hurt her knee, the injury flared up, and Kidman had to drop out of The Panic Room, a physically demanding thriller in which she was replaced by Jodie Foster.

Moulin Rouge was also delayed when Luhrmann's father died on the first day of shooting. Fox was ultimately forced to postpone the film's release, originally scheduled for last Christmas. "It means a hell of a lot to me," says Kidman of the movie, which finally came in at a cost of more than $50 million, "because I see how much it means to Baz. Also because it's a musical. If it does well, it will mean audiences are willing to embrace different things."

Kidman certainly is. Her next project could be a film for Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark). She'll also appear, opposite Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, an adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel directed by Billy Elliot's Stephen Daldry. Asked if her choices will change now that she's on her own, she laughs. "Now that I've got to support myself? No," she says. "I love theater. I love art films. Now I have the freedom to go to Denmark and work with Lars. Different things are available to me. I've got a very different life now."

In the near future, Kidman, who has been living in the Pacific Palisades home she shared with Cruise, will spend a lot of time hunkered down with her divorce attorney, William Beslow, whose past clients include Sarah Ferguson, the renegade Duchess of York. (With some $250 million at stake, Cruise has his own big gun, Dennis Wasser, who also represented James Woods in a divorce case.) Once that is settled, Kidman will probably spend more time in Australia, where her parents and sister still live.

In August, however, Kidman and Cruise will find themselves back in business, at least professionally. In The Others, Kidman stars as a 1940s British war widow with two children in a haunted country manor. Cruise doesn't co-star, but he is a producer on the movie. "I feel like I bled for that film," says Kidman, who shot it right after Moulin Rouge. "It burned me out. I hope it's good." Chilling and elegant, The Others will remind you that Cruise and Kidman can still make beautiful (if creepy) music together. Meanwhile, Moulin Rouge will show that Kidman can also make it on her own.