I used to turn off Moulin Rouge! right before the ending. I felt like I wasn’t strong enough to get through the ending more than once, as though it was some traumatizing thing. Turning off the film meant that I could remember the characters in a comfortable liminal place, stuck between the moment they reunite and Satine’s death. I have realized in recent years that this terrible ending is vital to Moulin Rouge’s commentary on love and freedom. Love is monumental because it exists for a short time in a chaotic world. The film argues that chaos brings people together, and for a time, there is order and symmetry. When it ends, the cycle begins again, much like an adaptation. New people, new lives, a similar story. Perhaps that is why we adapt classic love stories. We might know how they end, but we are still drawn to their execution, those moments in between.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”
It seems like tragic love stories have a greater legacy than others. I think it’s because audiences believe that if they tell the story the ‘right’ way, they might be able to make sense of it’s tragic ending, maybe even prevent it. Or perhaps its tragic nature makes love special. These stories suggest that it is miraculous for love to exist in the first place, and that it is enough just for it to exist for a time. There is one story in particular which has captivated our culture in immeasurable ways: Orpheus and Eurydice. It began as a Greek myth but has since merged into countless adaptations, some direct and some very subtle. Although the myth appears in new contexts and with new words, the ending is always the same. Orpheus and Eurydice will never be together. Yet, it’s as though each adaptation brings these characters together, just momentarily, to enjoy those precious moments in-between, made especially precious because they don’t last long.
Adaptations like Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (which is often referenced alongside Moulin Rouge) adjusts Orpheus and Eurydice to suit contemporary anxieties and morals, which is why its heroine dies of consumption rather than a snake bite. There are multiple filmic adaptations of the myth, and Moulin Rouge is arguably the most recognizable. It follows the same narrative beats but, like La Traviata, it transforms them. Moulin Rouge is like the Underworld, it’s a place you go to forget life. Everything there is beautiful but there is a twinge of sadness and horror in it, like an abattoir with a manicured lawn. Satine is a good example of this binary, as her name sounds like satin, a luxurious fabric you decorate with, but it also sounds like Satan. Satine is both of those things, as she is a courtesan, often used like some expensive object by wealthy men, but she is also conscious of her situation in this Underworld and knows how to operate within it.
“We’re creatures of the underworld. We can’t afford to love”
Like other Eurydice adaptations, Satine is a stark realist, which contrast Christian/Orpheus’ naïve optimism. I like this addition to the story, as it suggests that Orpheus and Eurydice switch traits at the end of the tale. Eurydice becomes hopeful while Orpheus becomes doubtful and realistic. Something slightly different happens in Moulin Rouge, as Christian turns around to face Satine as she declares her love and they have a few glorious moments before she dies. The act of turning around isn’t a bad or doubtful thing, in fact, the film celebrates second thoughts. Satine initially thinks that Christian is the Duke, and she is furious when she realizes that he isn’t. But she is still willing to give him a second chance, as she turns around rather than walking away. Anytime a character does something motivated by doubt, they are shot walking forward and not looking back. This blinds them to what is happening around them and suggests that they are too determined and single-minded. When Satine decides to break up with Christian, to save his life, the camera focuses on her steady and straight path. She is being rational, and so is her walk. This contrasts director Baz Luhrmann‘s earlier technique, which included multiple swinging shots, sped up movement, and other bizarre shots.
When the Duke tries to shoot Christian at the end of the film, he runs forward, shouting “My way. MY WAY” before Zidler steps out and punches him in the face. This moment visualizes the film’s commentary on realism versus irrational freedom. By all accounts, Satine should have ended up with the Duke because he is the smart and financially secure choice. But Satine rejects him and, in doing so, also rejects logic. She and Christian turn around and go back to one another rather than walking forward, and that action is purposefully illogical. Moving forward, you move towards things you have not seen. Moving backwards, or choosing to go back, you see the same things that you have already seen from a different perspective. Moulin Rouge thus changes the direction of doubt. Bad things will still happen if you turn around, but it is better to be there when they happen then to walk away from them. Like an adaptation, you can learn something by going back and studying something you have already seen.
“With songs they have sung for a thousand years”
Moulin Rouge’s jukebox nature also emphasizes adaptation. Unlike a classic musical, Moulin Rouge is filled with popular songs that the audience already knows from non-musical theater contexts. This does two things. First, it engages the audience and encourages them to sing along. Second, and more importantly, it suggests that these songs are timeless and that they at the core of human existence. It doesn’t matter that Satine and Christian are singing in late 19th century France, their words transcend time and authorship. The film’s jukebox nature thus suggests that these lyrics have always existed because the things they describe have always existed.
Likewise, Moulin Rouge’s environment melds to Christian’s emotional state, much like how Orpheus’ music could influence nature. When he is happy, the world becomes as excessive and joyous as him. When he is upset, everything becomes sinister, even the film’s colour palette. The tones are less vibrant, and we start to see things cracking. The Moulin Rouge is no longer this unbridled spectacle, it becomes a sad cage.
“They were known as the children of the revolution”
Moulin Rouge’s style is about as iconic as it’s musical numbers. Like Luhrmann’s other films, it is completely unrealistic in every possible way. Technically it’s a period piece, but it’s not traditional nor consistent. I remember visiting the real Moulin Rouge a few years ago; I was sorely disappointed at how little it was compared to the film. There is definitely no elephant (at least not anymore) , it’s really just a tourist trap. The film was more influenced by the impressionistic images of Montmartre in the 19th century, not what existed. Impressionism is defined by experience, as its artwork tries to illustrate what places and people feel like in the moment. Some lit their subjects with electric lights, which was rather splotchy and uneven. Others framed their subjects in uncomfortable positions, as though there were other people or objects between the painter and subject. These techniques mean that Impressionism is both realistic and not. It’s realistic in that it shows subjects in unflattering ways, based on their environment and what was happening in that moment, and unrealistic in that the style is abstract and rejects hyper-realism.
Moulin Rouge focuses on the Bohemian world and the Impressionist attitude. Specifically, how the movement suggests that ordinary moments and lower-class people are of equal importance, maybe even more, than monumental events and subjects. The impressionist were interested in ‘waste’ and what was often discarded by celebrated artwork and patrons. This led to the bohemian movement highlighted in Moulin Rouge, which celebrates artistic freedom and unconventional life. Sure, the bohemians were largely the sons of wealthy men, who had the luxury and time to reject in the first place, but regardless, they fostered many interesting theories and works. Christian’s theater troupe are obsessed with bohemian values, and they view Christian as a prophet of the new era (hence his name, Christian or religion). This is rather comical because Christian’s ideas are just adaptations of other people’s work, as he is unknowingly singing other musicians’ lyrics. And so, what seems revolutionary is in fact natural. He is just attuned to this nature.
Christian and his friends are not as dirty or uncomfortable as some Impressionist artwork, but that is where Satine comes in. Satine is a firm realist who is willing to talk about her position as a woman in a male dominated class system. Christian and his group have no idea what Satine and the other women of the Moulin Rouge must put up with. I think the film could have gone further with this, and really focused on the disparity between Christian’s privileged view of the world and Satine’s, rather than having Satine immediately buckle and follow Christian. It would have been interesting to see the overlap between realism and bohemianism, which is essentially what Satine and Christian represent.
“We could steal time, just for one day”
The film’s excessive style goes along with its excessive love story. There is nothing subtle about the film, nor the stakes in Satine and Christian’s relationship. They are always just between joy and devastation, life and death. There are no tiny moments in their relationship as they do not have time for that. Love is an irrational declaration, not a timid decision, and the film’s style is indicative of that. For instance, the film blends different songs together to create an entrancing fusion made up of different artists, genres, and eras. This musical decision is another way the film focuses on excess, as it is never just a song, it’s a musical. It’s never just one artist, it’s two or more per song. And it’s never just singing, it’s singing in a jeweled elephant, with glitter rain, while a full moon performs Italian opera.
During the elephant medley scene between Christian and Satine, Christian tries to convince Satine that they should be together, in spite of the realities between them. Satine reminds him that she doesn’t have the same luxuries as he does, and that she cannot afford to be romantic. She starts to walk away until Christian cries out, “We could be heroes, just for one day”. This line is my favourite moment in the film, it’s a last-ditch manifesto for love in chaos. It celebrates paying attention to something small while everything big is distracted. Now, I am heavily biased, as it’s a lyric from David Bowie’s “Heroes”, but I still think the song is perfect for Satine and Christian’s situation. It is a profound piece which feels timeless but is also tied to a specific moment. Bowie wrote it during his time in Berlin, apparently after he saw his producer, Tony Visconti, kissing vocalist Antonia Maass beside the Berlin Wall as a guard yelled at them to stop. It was a short thing, and Visconti and Maass ultimately didn’t stay together. And yet, this moment of love is immortalized in Bowie’s song, which treats it as a rebellious and glorious thing. Satine and Christian’s relationship is similar, in that it doesn’t last very long but it is something praiseworthy and heroic.
Bowie’s perspective lends well to the original Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus was a hero before he met Eurydice, and his journey to the Underworld is another heroic act. Love is as noble and heroic as anything else Orpheus did, perhaps more so, and that idea carries into Moulin Rouge. Love in Moulin Rouge isn’t a rejection of reality, Christian and Satine know what is at stake. They fall in love anyway, and that is what makes it heroic. Satine turns around because of this Bowie lyric, the very idea that she and Christian “could be heroes, just for one day” by falling in love. But that one day, one song, would be enough.