“So she has to sleep in the same bed as someone else for a night, what’s the big deal?”
Such was my chief frustration with director Baz Luhrmann’s jukebox rock musical Moulin Rouge!, seeing it for the first time, as I did, on a plane trip down to Florida at the age of approximately 8. Not yet old enough that I could understand everything that the phrase “I must sleep with the Duke” means, I found myself extremely confused about why everyone was making such a fuss about a little side by side REM. Why did Christian care so much? Why did everyone? But one thing I was able to grasp fully, even at the age of 8, was that they did care. A lot. To Christian and Satine, every move they made was like the climax of an opera, every decision loaded with emotion that the movie could barely contain in all its color, music, and movement. I didn’t have to understand the extent to which Satine was being asked to give herself over to a man she despised, because I felt it anyway. Moulin Rouge! (the exclamation point only not annoying due to just how necessary it is to get the effect) had the ability to do that to me back in 2001. The colors are bright, the editing fast, and the plot is ludicrous. Loosely adapted from the 1893 opera La Bohème (also a key piece of source material for Rent), the film looks more like a music video of the MTV era than an operatic tragedy about tuberculosis – but the movie had feeling, enough that it practically exploded off the screen, and by god even at 8 years old did I feel it. I had never seen anything like that before, and in a way I never have since.
The key to Moulin Rouge! is that it’s about nothing if not storytelling. It’s filled with writers and artists preaching the bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. A meta narrative three times over, the film starts and ends with the rising and falling curtain presenting us the film in a theater of our minds, which in turn features a framing device in which Ewan McGregor’s Christian mournfully tells us the story we then see, in which he and his great love Satine put on a play for the Moulin Rouge (the venue) based on their love affair. Luhrmann is telling us a story about a man telling us a story about a great love forged in the fires of putting on a show. The performers break out into hit songs like “Your Song,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Roxanne,” because according to Luhrmann he wanted these artists to feel ahead of their time. And in a way, it works. Moulin Rouge! itself seems to exist any time and no time, a fairytale that hangs on it’s emotions. Madonna’s 1984 hit “Material Girl” is mashed up with the Marilyn Monroe classic from 1953, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” all set in a parisian nightclub in 1900, based on a story from 1893, in a film edited like it’s 1999. The fast cuts and punk beats were nearly unheard of for great romantic tragedy at the time, much more accustomed as we were to the traditional melodrama of something like The English Patient or Titanic (brief diversion to explain the main reason why the earlier released Titanic did not have the same overwhelming affect on me as a child – I was only allowed to watch the first VHS of James Cameron’s epic, while no such parental controls exist on airplane televisions when Mom is trying too hard not to be sick).
The plot, as stated above, is ludicrous. A mashup of Shakespearean mistaken identity, Molierien hijinks, 1800’s operetta, 1980’s glam pop and 1990’s romantic melodrama, it all falls apart if you were to think about any of it too hard. Could the Duke really be so oblivious to not see what is right in front of him? Could Satine, apparently dying of the debilitating tuberculosis, really dance and make love with such passion, her only symptom being the occasional chekhovian bloody cough? Why does a certain dancer (apparently named Nini, not that you’d notice watching the movie) seem to pop up exclusively when the story needs her to stir up the trouble that sets the film’s climax in motion, only to have her immediately return to the background? No idea. But it’s a story, and that’s what matters. A story that Luhrmann is telling us about Christian, that Christian’s telling us about Satine, and that they’re telling us together about the courtesan and the sitar player (the movie’s fairly shallow appropriation of Indian culture without any real plot necessity is one of it’s few poorly aged qualities). Is any of this real? Of course not! But that’s the point; in a story, anything can be real. Any swings of the plot or narrative short cuts can be real as long as it feels real. Satine and Christian are lovers who see themselves as the stars of a great romance, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s ok to buy in, to let them believe that they can be heroes, because when watching Moulin Rouge! we feel an awful lot like we could be heroes ourselves.
A lot of that comes down to Kidman and McGregor, who do do their damndest to sell everything the movie throws at them. Though occasionally criticized in years since for their less than Broadway level vocals (which are still pretty damn impressive), I’d argue that that fits the themes perfectly. Christian and Satine are not the great stars that they imagine they could be, but that makes their unwavering belief in each other all the more tragic, and simultaneously all the more hopeful. It was Kidman who earned the Oscar nomination for her by turns funny, tragic, and glittering performance as Satine, and she deserved it for how well she understands what the film needs her to be; a beautiful object one moment, and a wounded soul full of vibrancy the next. But McGregor is just as good, turning a character that could be a poorly aged “nice guy” with possessive tendencies into an endlessly charming kid with the soul of a poet. Their chemistry is perfect, and Luhrmann films them like he knows he has two of the best looking people in Hollywood falling in love on camera. He never forgets their humanity though, and that’s what makes the film work. Without it, the final product is little more than empty spectacle. With it, no matter what he throws at us we never stop caring.
The third film in Luhrmann’s unofficial red curtain trilogy (after Strictly Ballroom and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet), the filmmaker was an old hat at this by 2001. Romeo + Juliet especially showcased that his films didn’t have to make any sense, some of his actors don’t even have to fully understand what they’re saying, but if they feel it that’s what really matters. He was famously snubbed (a term I have issues with, but in this case I feel does apply) by the Academy in the Best Director category, host Whoopi Goldberg famously quipping, “I guess Moulin Rouge! directed itself!”, and despite going into the night as a PGA winning major contender, it walked away with only 2 awards for it’s stunning Production Design and dazzling costumes. Both rewards went to Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife (a feat she repeated with her husband’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby), so I can at least take solace in a quartet of oscars sitting on his fireplace. But in the two decades since, Moulin Rouge! has stood the test of time just as well, if not better, than many of its competitors that year; for example, I’m sure A Beautiful Mind is a lovely film, but let me know when it gets a musical. I had the luck of seeing the Moulin Rouge! stage musical before it was shuttered along with the rest of Broadway in March 2020, and the love and excitement in the theater shows that this story is here to stay. But having seen both, I might make the argument that the movie holds up better. Despite it’s obvious theatricality making it seem ideally suited for the stage, when the movie screen has a border, the glitter can seem to go forever – in a theater, it can really only travel as far as gravity will let it.
If I had to guess with 20 years of retrospect, he may have been left off the short list because his direction didn’t seem “serious” enough, especially in the first ceremony post the 9/11 tragedy; it may have seemed like a music video stretched out to two hours, a pop exercise without much to say about the here and now. And perhaps there is some validity to that, the occasional flourish threatening to send the whole endeavor too far into camp – but every time it looks like Luhrman might take it too far, he reminds you there are real people at the center of this story. Or maybe not real people, as every inch of this is make believe, but real feeling, and there is always something worth saying about feeling. Because with feelings that real it frankly doesn’t matter if you understand what’s going on, why this person is mad at this person or who is betraying whom. It doesn’t matter if you know what it means for her to “sleep with” him. Because whatever they’re feeling, you feel it too, and sometimes that’s more than enough. Sometimes it’s so much that you still remember, 20 years later, sitting on the airport shuttle absolutely shell shocked, because you know that you just experienced something big. Something so big it will stay with you long after the curtains close.
Moulin Rouge! was released on June 1, 2001 by 20th Century Fox. It is currently available to stream for rent on Amazon, Vudu, Apple TV+ and Google Play.