Blog Analysis 2: Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Title: Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Date of release: 1 June 2001
Nationality: Australia | USA
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Running time: 2hr 7 min (127 min)
Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance
Budget: $50,000,000 (estimated)
- Panavision Panaflex Millennium
- Panavision Primo
- C-Series Lenses
Printed Film Format: 35 mm (Kodak Vision Premier 2393)
Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
- Twentieth Century Fox (presents) (as Twentieth Century Fox)
- Bazmark Films (as A Bazmark Production)
Moulin Rouge! (2001) is a movie directed by Australian director Baz Luhrmann. The film was included in a 2002 DVD boxed set called the Red Curtain Trilogy, which included two other well-known Luhrmann films: Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Strictly Ballroom (1992). Although the three films do not have linking storylines or settings, they do share some thematic elements and stylistic elements that the director used to catalog them as part of a whole. The three movies share what Luhrmann terms as “theatricalized cinema-style”.
They all have a theater-like setting and focus on one of the branches of performance: Strictly Ballroom focuses on dance, Romeo + Juliet centers on plays, oratory, and poetry, while Moulin Rouge!’s story is expressed through song. There are also visual elements that tie all three films together, such as the color palette choices, camera angles, and the inclusion of busy sequences with frantic paces that include many extras as if resembling a theater performance.
Moulin Rouge! tells the story of Christian (Ewan McGregor), a young English man with a dream to become a writer, that travels to Paris in 1899 and quickly becomes immersed in the bohemian and dissolute life of the city. It is an older and disillusioned Christian who is telling the audience his own story, and unlike in the first sequences of the film where we see a Paris riddled with drug addicts and prostitutes, the city of lights in Christian’s memories is filled with wonders and adventures. Through this juxtaposition, the film already hints at the journey the young man will take and foreshadows its sad ending, though the reason for its outcome does not take too long to be made evident, as he tells us very early on that his lover has died.
Christian quickly becomes friends with a group of bohemian misfits amongst which is Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the famous French painter, well known for his art about 1900s Parisian life and Moulin Rouge illustrations.
They want to convince the manager of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) to showcase in his club a play that they wrote called Spectacular Spectacular. To achieve this they go to the nightclub, where Christian quickly becomes infatuated with the most beautiful of all the performers, Satine (Nicole Kidman) which many believe is based on the real-life can-can dancer Jane Avril immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec in his works.
Throughout most of the film, Luhrmann uses fast-paced editing, time-lapses, as well as unusual camera angles and framing. However, when the audience is first introduced to the nightlife at the Moulin Rouge the editing becomes almost frenetic with an ample sensorial input consisting of gaudy colors, sudden movements, and strident remixes of songs.
Christian, who is not familiar with the intense atmosphere of the place, looks on awkwardly until suddenly, everything stops, and Satine appears. She performs a mashup of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girls’ Best Friends” and “Material Girl” by Madonna.
Parallel to Christian’s storyline we have Satine’s. Zidler has ordered her to impress a possible investor: The Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh). Satine’s dream is to become an actress and quit being a courtesan. With the Duke’s investment, Zidler wants to convert the Moulin Rouge into a theater with Satine as the main star.
Things do not go as planned, however, because, in one of the many comedic twists of the movie, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke and invites him to spend the evening with her instead. Christian, believing that she knows that he is a writer, readily accepts and goes to her private chamber – a metal elephant structure – to present to her Spectacular Spectacular.
After a few comedic shenanigans, Satine is quickly attracted by Christian’s words and readily falls in love with him. It is at this moment that Zidler and the Duke appear. While Christian hides, Satine manages to get rid of him. However, unexpectedly, Monroth comes back to retrieve his hat only to find Christian holding Satine who fainted due to a respiratory disease that the audience would later learn is consumption, or as it is known nowadays, tuberculosis.
The Duke is very angry but with the help of Toulouse and his friends, who were peeping in on the rooftop, they make it seem as if they had been rehearsing for a play. Zidler is quickly cued in on what’s going on and together they all manage to convince Monroth to sponsor the show.
Christian and Satine begin an affair, while she skillfully circumvents the Duke’s advances by making him believe that she will become his on the opening night of the show. This lasts until someone hints about the romance between the young writer and the courtesan to the Duke, who becomes enraged and insists that Satine spends the night with him immediately. Zidler convinces her to go through with it because as part of his deal to invest in the Moulin Rouge, Monroth asked for the deed to the nightclub, which effectively means that the Duke owns their livelihoods.
Full of jealousy, Christian waits with the rest of the crew and the other performers for the night to be over. In this scene, we see an example of parallel editing. The narrative constantly shifts between “El Tango de Roxanne”, a reimagining of the song by The Police, to the room where Satine dines with The Duke.
Ultimately, Satine decides that she is not willing to go through with it and rejects Monroth. He becomes enraged and tried to force her to sleep with him, but she is saved by a stagehand. She flees to Christian’s room at the nearby rundown hotel and they decide they will run away together. However, just when she’s about to leave the Moulin Rouge after packing up her things, Zidler uses the knowledge that she is dying to stop her. What’s more, the Duke has threatened to kill Christian.
Satine knows the risk to her lover’s life is too great, especially if she’s dying anyway so she decides to break up with Christian. However, she knows that he would never leave unless she hurts him thoroughly so she acts as if she has chosen the Duke instead.
Christian is disconsolate, but he is determined to see Satine one last time, so he attends the premiere of Spectacular Spectacular, the show they had planned together that paralleled their whole love story. He breaks in the middle of the last act asking Satine to explain why she has chosen to leave him and the reason for what he believes were her lies.
They have a big fight onstage which culminates with him walking off, but just when he’s about to leave Toulouse screams his line: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” This phrase is part of “Nature Boy”, a song by Eden Ahbez originally recorded by Nat King Cole. The song, a moody, mysterious tune, and this lyric in particular, form part of the central message of the whole film. It is used at several points of the movie, including the opening credits, and comes back once more at the climax to usher in the plot resolution.
After listening to Toulouse’s words, Christian and Satine reunite in a grandiose performance that culminates their play, the Duke tries to shoot Christian but is stopped by Zidler and leaves after his plans have been foiled.
Spectacular Spectacular has just ended and the curtains have fallen, but unlike the happy ending in their play, Satine and Christian’s outcome is not as fortunate. Right after they finish the show, Satine has an attack, and after an emotional farewell, dies in Christian’s arms.
That is how we learn, that after mourning her for a year, Christian finally decided to write their story as she had asked with her last breaths. The movie ends with the final keystrokes of his typewriter and the red curtain closes.
Moulin Rouge! is a musical with a romantic drama subgenre. Like most films from the same genre, it tells its story and portrays the character’s emotions through the songs. What makes this film unique is that, unlike other musicals, such as the popular Bollywood film Lagaan (2001), where the performances form part of the overall narrative seamlessly interweaving with the storyline organically, Moulin Rouge! is designed to appear as a show, with distinct scenes and stage acts, rather than a film.
The movie opens with a view of a theater and an orchestra director. The visual image of a red curtain is employed throughout the film constantly. We see it in the Moulin Rouge nightclub, in the love-room situated in the Elephant, and in the Duke’s chamber as well. It frames and hides Satine and Christian’s love affair and adorns almost every shot. To the viewer, its presence is inescapable and a constant reminder that what we are watching is nothing but a creation, not real. But much like theater, the spectators are asked to forget this obvious fact outright. The movie expects us to suspend our disbelief enough that we can submerge ourselves within the tale that is being told, even when we already know the ending.
Each of the musical numbers is bombastic and many times they are arranged with props that reminisce of a musical performance in a theater. Even when CGI is used, it is employed to reinforce the “fakeness” of the setting rather than to evoke the feeling of verisimilitude.
“It is a computer generated-Paris which does not need to be taken seriously, either in its lineaments or its historical reality. Like everything else in this madly over- excitable film – like the design, the plot, the performances and especially the music – it is a great big joke, tipping us a cheeky wink”.
The performances by the cast seem overacted. The expressions and movements are too big, too intense when so many of the shots consist of close-ups. This is obviously a stylistic choice rather than an issue with the actors themselves. In theater, feelings must be overexpressed so that the audience is able to detect them from far away. Obviously, in a movie, where so much of the emotions are expressed through editing, camera angles, and framing this would not be necessary. However, Luhrmann uses this to reinforce once more the sense that we are watching a show.
Similarly, it happens with the makeup: intense red lips over very white painted faces, slightly fraying at the edges, like a stale, crumbling mask. This is another element of the theater because makeup does not need to be perfect if the audience is feet away.
Some, such as film historian Richard Barsam, consider that the “mise-en-scène overwhelms the narrative with overripe colors, swirling movements […] manic editing, and nonnaturalistic acting”. However, it could be argued that the film seeks to analyze and explore art for art’s sake and that the film’s narrative is but a secondary element to that goal.
Moulin Rouge! is a pastiche of musical numbers and pop song references, and the public is invited to enjoy each on a one-by-one basis. It banks on the audience’s emotional attachment to the shows and songs it references for its success and leaves the narrative as an afterthought. It’s like going to the opera to hear La Bohème; the audience doesn’t understand Italian and we already know she dies in the end, the goal then, is to appreciate the experience itself.
That’s what Luhrmann seeks to do in his film. What will happen in the movie is told to us from the very first moment and repeated in the form of the Spectacular Spectacular’s narrative over and over. There is no element of surprise, we are not amazed at how Satine seeks to distance herself from Christian to save him, and we feel no shock at the tragic ending, just pity at what we knew was coming. So, because we are not so worried about what the movie means, we can better focus on what the movie does.
“Many critics have noted how the film’s stylistic promiscuity calls into question the generic boundaries and conventional readings of film musicals”
Mina Yang, Cambridge Opera Journal 2008
Moulin Rouge! does share similarities with other films within the same genre. Some other musicals even try to emulate musical theater although they are not as heavy-handed. This is the case of Chicago (2002) directed by Rob Marshall or the classic West Side Story (1961) directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Like most musicals, all three films “feature a combination of music, singing, dancing, and spoken dialogue”. The emotions and actions of the film are expressed through music and intricate sets that help advance the narrative.
Traditionally musicals were tied to a Broadway backdrop and most had a romantic storyline and a happy ending. As time went by, however, musicals moved on to mix with other genres. Therefore, many modern musicals do not necessarily follow the traditional narrative formula commonly found in films such as Sound of Music (1965) or My Fair Lady (1964). Both these two films show the blooming romance of a young woman with a wealthy bachelor, their struggles to realize their love, and ultimately the expected happy ending. Although, having to be exposed to trials and vicissitudes their journey is not usually one of intense suffering or that dabbles in the grey area of morally dubious ethics.
This is not the case with the three other musical films mentioned above. While Moulin Rouge! tells the story of a love affair between a penniless writer and a courtesan, Chicago presents us to two death-row murderesses competing for the spotlight and fame, and West Side Story, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, deals with teenage gangs in New York and racial tension. And unlike the traditional genre conventions, two of the films on the list have a tragic ending.
Another cinematic element commonly present in musicals is the long shot. This was so that the audience could enjoy the musical dance numbers, so popular in early musicals such as Fred Astaire’s movies. While West Side Story employs this type of framing often, Chicago uses it but is usually interspersed with other shots such as medium shots and even close-ups. Moulin Rouge!, however, favors close-ups and extreme close-ups. Although long shots are used for some of the more emotional musical numbers like the performance of Your Song, the medley on top of the Elephant, or the Tango de Roxanne, they are often juxtaposed with mid shots and close-ups. The more up-tempo numbers are edited to seem a jumble of moving figures and body parts somewhat reminiscent of an impressionistic painting.
Traditional musicals, such as Barbra Streisand’s Hello, Dolly! (1969), mostly use high-key lighting because it allows the audience to see what’s going on on-screen to better enjoy the musical number. West Side Story, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge! all break this genre convention.
West Side Story and Chicago use light to simulate the lighting of a Broadway play. We have three-point lighting, backlights, and beams. Luhrmann’s approach in Moulin Rouge! is almost Noir-like, with deep shadows and dramatic flashes of light that illuminate disconnected body parts. It also uses an alternatingly overly warm and blueish tint that makes the ambiance carnival-like.
Taken at face value, Moulin Rouge! appears to some as a glorification of sexism and cultural appropriation.
Throughout much of the film, Satine is always portrayed as an object of desire and a prize to be won by the male characters, and this view is only slightly challenged by her assertions that she wants to be a “real actress”, a personal goal independent of the wishes of the men around her.
Her romance with Christian is sullied by his jealousy and naivete and we intuit, that had she not died early on, that spark might have fizzled out when Christian discovered that he was not so much in love with Satine but the idea of her.
He is an impetuous kid, from a middle-class background, running away from responsibility, who’s in love with love rather than with the person. He, unlike her, is allowed the freedom to travel the world and succeed or fail at life as he would. She, on the other hand, only wants a semblance of stability, and a chance to become her own person. But even narratively, she’s bound. Had they not met, he would have gone on to “fall in love” with someone else, while she, no matter what, would have still died from tuberculosis.
However, her lack of agency is not disguised in the film. We are not meant to long to become her. She’s presented as beautiful, broken, and pitiful in a characterization that many could see as demeaning, while ignoring that this was the reality of many women in her time, and still today.
Some would argue that the movie portrays examples of the “male gaze” – a term coined by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey – such as Nicole Kidman’s memorable interpretation of the mashup of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girls’ Best” Friends and “Material Girl” by Madonna. This particular performance would be one of the main exponents of it. The use of camera angles, framing, and movement are “predominantly for the benefits of the male viewers. The camera basically becomes a heterosexual man, it lingers over the curves of her body, every time she is on screen she is objectified.”
As a counterpoint, one could say that this is done explicitly since the film does not try to hide the sexualization of the character. The songs chosen are both originally sung by two of the most famous female sexual icons of modern times, simultaneously constricted within their provocative persona that reduced them to a pleasure object in the eyes of society and transgressive symbols because of their unapologetically overt sexuality, which they weaponized to carve themselves a name and permanent space in a male-dominated industry.
In the film, when coming up with the concept of Spectacular Spectacular, they trade Switzerland for “exotic India”, implying that no one would want to set a musical in the Alps, except this is a tong-in-cheek gripe, because that’s the exact premise of Sound of Music, one of the most popular musicals.
“Indian scholars Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti explore the implications of Luhrmann’s nod to Bollywood cinema in their essay titled “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” […] Gopal and Moorti immediately establish that they believe that Luhrmann may have meant well, but ultimately overstepped his cinematic boundaries.”
“Though a Bollywood film is not a “musical” in the sense that Hollywood gives to the term, Luhrmann (mis)translates it as such and then proceeds to use this other cinematic form as the basis for “providing a new vernacular for the musical” in the West. Created in this mix of admiration, misunderstanding, and bricolage, Luhrmann’s homage to Bollywood arrived in the West at a moment marked by trendy citations of Hindi cinema in popular culture.”
Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 2011
But it could be argued that the film’s approach is not completely wrong in a historical sense. At the beginning of the 20th century, in a world still in the grips of colonialism – India did not have its independence from the British Empire until 1947 – theater was often characterized with productions that wanted to portray the “unknown wilderness” alien to the lives of common European folk, and in their ignorance, often banalizing and whitewashing those cultures.
Like most of the interactions between colonizers and the colonized countries, it was indeed a form of cultural appropriation. Europeans took and incorporated pieces of tradition from their non-European counterparts into their own culture without fully understanding their meaning and importance and while still perpetuating the concept of the “otherness”.
European culture was then, much like the film itself, a pastiche of disjointed, ill-fitting elements, thrown together in a wild mélange, that, while beautiful in their own right, lacked much meaning when devoid of their context.
The movie’s overall take on every subject it deals with is crass and superficial, and unashamed in this approach. We do not get a treatise on the awful conditions of women’s lives in the 20th century; we don’t talk about sexuality or disabled people, although one of the main secondary characters of the film is disabled; there is no analysis of the mercenary nature of showbusiness and the cultural appropriation it perpetrated; there’s not even an exploration of the legends associated with the famous Parisian nightclub itself or the well-known painter whose work inspired many of the movie’s aesthetics.
Moulin Rouge! doesn’t delve deeper, the characters do not have a real comeuppance for their actions and there is no moral or ethical point other than a constant repetition that “all you need is love”, something directly contradicted by the fact that the story has a tragic ending despite the main characters fighting for their love. Instead, the spectators are left on their own to make out of the film what they will. And that, in and out of itself, might be also the movie’s objective.
Barsam, Richard M, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. , 2010.
Gopal, Sangita & Moorti, Sujata. “Bollywood in Drag: Moulin Rouge! and the Aesthetics of Global Cinema.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 2011. 25. 29-67. 10.1215/02705346-2010-009.
Krenn, Sylvia. Postmodern and Oriental Elements in Moulin Rouge!: Film Analysis. , 2007. Internet resource.
van der Merwe, Ann. “Music, the Musical, and Postmodernism in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.” Music and the Moving Image, vol. 3, no. 3, 2010, pp. 31–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.3.3.0031. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Yang, Mina. “Moulin Rouge! and the Undoing of Opera.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 20, no. 3, 2008, pp. 269–282. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40664813. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.
Note: The images features in this article do not belong to me. They are stills from Moulin Rouge! (2001). Every element in this post is referenced for educational purposes only.