Let me start by saying I hate when film reviews use words like “masterpiece” and “genius” but for me, when I talk about Moulin Rouge and Baz Luhrmann there’s simply no other way to start. Firstly, I can’t believe it’s been 18 years since it was first released. Second, in retrospect, it’s plain to see how ahead-of-its-time it really was and how pop culture has continued to reference or borrow from it while never quite reaching the same heights.
My introduction to Luhrmann’s work was in high school, and it was perfectly timed for my sophomore English project. We were studying William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and I compared the use of language and adaptation between Zeffirelli’s lush and sensual costumed spectacle and Luhrmann’s edgy Venice Beach revamp. I remember being thrilled I got to play the trailer to the film in class as part of my discussion, and I ended up getting an A.
Fast forward to my first year of college and Nicole Kidman’s on the cover of Vogue, promoting Lurhmann’s latest film, Moulin Rouge. A test audience member referenced in the article said it felt “like The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Titanic.” I knew this movie was for me.
I went on opening day. I was unprepared. Even though I had read tons of promotional materials and watched coverage I was still so very unprepared. It was all the holidays and your birthday at once. It was like a Disney musical on steroids and absinthe. It was utterly insane brilliance, and I left the theater only to return later that night with a friend in tow. (I ended up seeing it a total of eight times in the theater before it disappeared from the marquee for good.)
But first, the plot: In 1900, young, wide-eyed Christian (Ewan McGregor) travels to Paris to learn about the world, and ends up falling in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star courtesan of the Moulin Rouge. A writer, Christian has the gift of song, but, despite his pure heart and love he cannot save Satine from the seedy underworld—or her hidden case of consumption. So it’s the Orpheus myth by way of La Boheme (which it’s worth mentioning Luhrmann directed productions in both Australia and New York).
The film opens as if we are at the symphony, with a conductor. The lights go down, the red curtain parts, and the story unfolds to the strains of “Nature Boy”…
“The greatest thing
You’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
I always say if you can get through the first 15 minutes of a Luhrmann film, you’re clear for liftoff, because there always seems to be a bit of turbulence as he lays down the concept. For Romeo + Juliet, it was Shakespearean language; for Moulin Rouge, it’s popular music as a means of communication. Christian literally gets recruited to help write a play when his upstairs neighbors crash through his apartment ceiling. The play’s for Moulin Rouge owner Harry Zilder (John Broadbent). Inspired, Christian sings a little bit of “The Sound of Music,” then drinks absinthe with the other bohemians. Boom! Next thing you know, Kylie Minogue’s the Green Fairy and then boom! (again) we’re at the Moulin Rouge. The can-can dancers, or Diamond Dogs, are strutting their stuff to “Lady Marmalade” while the thirsty clients start jamming out to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This is all before Satine descends from the ceiling singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl” in a Marilyn-meets-Madonna moment for the ages.
This is not your grandmother’s musical, nor your great-great-great grandmother’s Moulin Rouge. It’s also not your typical costume film. There’s nothing stuffy here, with each Diamond Dog’s technicolor cancan shirts reflecting their name and personality. Satine’s top hat and corset combo is another Marilyn Monroe reference in itself, recalling the corset from Bus Stop and a tiny bit like a screen test costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Luhrmann also had massive sets built, while production direction and costume direction were both helmed by his wife and creative partner, Catherine Martin. (She went on to win two Oscars for Moulin Rouge, while Luhrmann wasn’t even nominated—one of the many times award season got it wrong with this particular film.) So while everything might feel style over substance, realize that these frantic frames have been discussed for hours on end. It might be high concept, but the ideas have been refined and polished to the brash and bold final product, packing out every inch of the silver screen.
Of course, there’s a comical mix up to set up the star-crossed lovers from the onset—Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) who will be financing the show that will make Satine a legitimate actress. While Satine’s busy trying to seduce Christian, he starts reciting the lyrics to Elton John’s “Your Song” before finally singing “My Gift is My Song” causing all the lights in Paris to go on—and every person watching this to stop dead in their tracks and fall in love with Ewan McGregor (I speak from experience). Before you know it, Christian and Satine are dancing in the clouds above the Eiffel Tower, accompanied by an opera-singing moon.
But when they come back down to earth, it’s revealed that Christian isn’t the Duke and they have to hide Christian from the Duke, with near-disastrous results that ends in pitching Spectacular, Spectacular, the tale of a Hindu courtesan promised to an evil Maharaja but in love with a poet with a magical sitar that only speaks the truth. The Duke bites, not realizing it’s a thinly veiled retelling of the events going around them (and what will play out for the rest of the film.)
For the first half of the film, Kidman is remarkable. She’s frothy and hilarious in the high comedy scenes but gives the depth needed for the impending tragedy we’ve been warned of from the film’s opening. She has a beautiful solo moment singing “One Day I’ll Fly Away” setting the caged bird motif that will follow her character the rest of the film. She’s well-paired and believable as she’s trying to fight off McGregor’s breathless attempts of getting her to submit to one night of love in the film’s “Elephant Love Medley,” a mishmash of multiple pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s. She’s able to hold off until the chorus of David Bowie’s “Heroes” that blends straight into Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and a blaze of fireworks and starlight.
That song alone is a tiny snapshot of the behind-the-scenes work Luhrmann did for this film. He literally discussed song usage and rights with every songwriter. (No small thing, to sit with the likes of both Bowie and Parton, I’d wager.) Additionally, “Elephant Love Medley” was originally Christian singing “Higher Love” in response to Satine’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” but they couldn’t get the keys to work. (Eighteen years after the fact, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” features in the Broadway stage show as a nod to that—one that made me very happy during Boston previews.)
A Spectacular, Spectacular Mashup of Genres
Luhrmann films can feel a bit like emotional whiplash. While Moulin Rouge could be called an operatic tragedy, it’s full of mad humor and campiness. I think it’s those qualities that make it easy for viewers to connect to characters quickly—you sort of get a feel for what everyone’s about and will be over the course of the film. The campiness also balances out the impending darkness we’re spiraling towards. For example, the sequence where Zidler and the Duke sing “Like a Virgin” is earmarked between scenes where Zidler tells Satine to leave Christian (for the first of many times) and her diagnosis of consumption, which Zidler hides from her. Satine tries to do right by her family and tries to end things with Christian. Instead, he suggests he write a song to put in the show. It’ll be their song—so they know they love one another, no matter what.
This is when the film finally slows a bit, letting the star crossed lovers display their love right in the open until Nini Legs-in-the-Air lets the cat out of the bag and Christian lets his growing jealousy get the better of him. Satine’s still able to stitch it back together by casting Christian off and turning her eye back to the Duke, and finally showing to supper with the Duke after months giving him the runaround.
Christian’s (and the Duke’s) jealousy for wanting Satine for their own is crystallized in the Argentian’s “El Tango De Roxanne” a spotlit tango of The Police’s “Roxanne” that almost makes the whole picture take actual flight off the screen and into the stratosphere. From the actual tango playing out on screen versus the emotional one Satine is trying to work out with the Duke, it all comes to a halt when she sees Christian—she can’t lie—and it almost costs her dearly, had Le Chocolat (Deobia Oparei) not slunk off into the shadows in case of danger. (A dancer at the Moulin Rouge, he’s one of her constant protectors in front of and behind the curtain.)
Today’s the Day When Dreaming Ends
Luhrmann’s films are full of dreamers, and in Moulin Rouge, everyone has their own. Christian dreams of love but isn’t ready for the pain and jealousy that comes along with it. Satine dreams of freedom but she’s constantly caged by men’s empty desires and their overflowing pockets. The bohemians want to share their ideals with the world—truth, beauty, freedom, and love—that seems full of people that never dream.
But dreams are dangerous, and when Satine escapes the Duke, Christian presses them to leave. But what about the show? “I don’t care about the show,” he says simply. Such a simple knife-through-the-heart moment. In a world where people only care about what Satine can do for them, Christian just cares about her.
As she packs her things, she’s intercepted by Zidler, once again telling her to push Christian away, now for his own safety as the Duke means to kill him. She almost makes it out the door and to freedom when Zidler hits her with the truth she’s known all along but couldn’t admit: she’s dying. It’s then that Zidler is able to convince Satine to do her worst: make Christian believe she never loved him.
“We’re creatures of the underworld, we can’t afford to love,” he reminds her.
Frozen and defeated, Satine concedes that this “today’s the day that dreaming ends.” This moment is a nice call back to the first time Zidler instructed Satine to call things off with Christian. Then she was lost in her dreams —now her dreams are dead. This isn’t just a musical now, it’s reaching deep into the emotional depths of opera.
As the sun rises, so do last-minute preparations for the show’s premiere alongside the operatic reworking of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” which feels tailor-made for the film. Satine appears ready to battle and give up the only thing that ever mattered to her. He words work and wound Christian, causing him to go mad, convinced he must pay her for services rendered. He returns to the Moulin Rouge once more, no longer an epicenter of frivolity and excess but a darkened theater flooded in blue, the Bollywood-inspired play churning out a darker version of the bright “Sparkling Diamonds” medley we were first greeted with.
Between scenes, Christian’s able to track down Satine, who is still trying to put him off to save him – however, as the frantic film plays out, their last words will be played out on stage. Christian throws money in Satine’s face, saying he’s paid his whore and walks off stage, almost out of the underworld, once and for all. But Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) finally remembers his line and reminds why we’ve all been here from the start:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
So Satine sings their secret song once more, begging “come back to me, and forgive everything” and there, in front of all, she tells Christian what she should have never denied: that she’ll love him, until the end of time. He turns, and replies—and it’s at that moment he’s found her (but will lose her come curtain call). There are no words for this scene, the way the actors voices mesh, the way the camera follows Christian back up on stage and Satine’s relief in knowing she didn’t lose him in the last moments of her life. I can still remember people gasping and sobbing in the theater. I was one of them.
Closing the Red Curtain
So the lovers and bohemians prevail and get their on-stage happy ending thanks to Zidler’s last-minute Duke punch-out. But as soon as the curtain and rose petals fall, Satine succumbs to her illness and that’s when everything goes still. Long, slow shots capture the shadows against Christian holding Satine’s lifeless body in a sea of white and red rose petals.
While Kidman nabbed the Oscar nomination, it was McGregor that was cruelly overlooked and after a whole film of being a wide-eyed prince charming in pauper’s clothing, it breaks down and he lets out a sob so guttural, so real, it makes me shudder thinking about it, much less rewatching it.
Luhrmann often immerses his actors in workshops weeks before actual shooting begins and it shows in the work. His coaxing allowed Kidman to let loose and break through the “ice queen” persona she was slated with at the time and be goofy in the early moments of the film. But here at the end, he allows McGregor to go to the darkest of spaces and finally come out on the healing side of grief, with Christian realizing their love will last forever now that he’d written their story, as he promised Satine.
The red curtain from the beginning returns, as well as the conductor, to play us out. All goes dark.
In 2001, I was unprepared for such a lush, sonic journey. I think audiences might still be, although consider the things that grew in popularity or were inspired by Moulin Rouge since 2001: an Olympic Gold-winning ice skating performance, uncountable episodes of Glee, showgirl-influenced fashion, its own Broadway musical, and musical remakes in general, including Chicago, which became the first musical to win Best Picture in a long time—a win I’ll always be sad about. Chicago is great for what it is, but it’s also too safe (and borrowed the concept that Dancer in the Dark employed to a much better and emotional end). There’s nothing safe about Moulin Rouge—it’s dark, it’s dangerous, it’s absolutely too much. And it never ever apologizes for it.
For that reason, it’s why we as viewers continue to return. In a way, I think Luhrmann also returned when he made his version of The Great Gatsby which was a spectacle of language, music and high fashion aesthetic.
Why do I return? Often, I think it’s to lose myself in its wonder. To remember how it feels to be in love that first time. But as an older, wiser person, deep down it’s to remind myself of the bohemian ideals I clung to in my youth. They are what truly make life worth living: truth, beauty, freedom, and love. Thank you, Baz Luhrmann.