The plot follows naïve, penniless English writer Christian in bohemian Paris, falling for beautiful courtesan, Satine. Glittering star of the low-life Moulin Rouge, Satine is dying of consumption. Manager, Harold Zidler, desperate to save his theatre, trades her sexual favours to a wealthy English Duke. Forced to choose between love and poverty with Christian, or musical career for sexuality to the Duke to save the cast, Satine rejects Christian to protect his life. When Christian angrily invades the spectacular stage show, she declares her love. As they sing a duet, the cast overthrow the Duke’s gun intended for Christian’s death, and virtuous love triumphs over villainy in seemingly glorious Technicolor.
A conductor stands before Disney-style Fantasia stage curtains, dramatically opening to the iconic tune of 20th Century Fox. Traditional can-can music announces an intertitle – Paris 1900: silent sepia images flicker on-screen and Toulouse Lautrec’s singing sweeps us into highly theatricalised black and white sets and digital 3D reconstructions of turn-of-the-century Montmartre. The camera alternates between bleached low-lit or black-andwhite shots, and flashes of brilliant colour, as it zooms into the garret of a bereft writer, and we enter Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann’s third in a trilogy of what Bell (in Mayer and Beatti 2007: 203) defines as his ‘red curtain’ cinema, after Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Romeo and Juliet (1996).
This musical extravaganza is a cinematic homage to melodrama, opera, silent cinema, Hollywood musicals and 1980s’ music video as, with characteristic verve, Luhrmann fuses postmodern technology with moving-image history. If Stanley Donen’s 1956 MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain celebrates film’s transition to sound, Moulin Rouge adopts silent film conventions from 1895 onwards in the self-conscious flickering sepia credits, the swooping Abel Gance-like shots of Montmartre characters, and the animated moon comically mirroring Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1904). The faded sequences of Christian typing his story ‘of love’, suggests also documentary-style veracity and 1930s Depression-era colour-cinematography. This contrast, with the artifice of garish sets and costumes of the Moulin Rouge, offers a cinematic essay on the conflict between innocent love and the seduction of showmanship, sexual exploitation and wealth.
In the Hollywood musicals, colour served the luxury dream palaces to provide cinematic relief from the Depression, the Second World War and post-war austerity, giving rise to the notion of the musical as escapist. The colour cinematography in Moulin Rouge initially functions playfully, like the Technicolor excess of a musical, reiterating Christian’s naïve optimism. But the colour also highlights the façade of the theatre. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), who found ‘there’s no place like home’ in sepia-coloured Kansas, Satine and Christian in Moulin Rouge find ‘true love’ in his low-lit and impoverished garret, or in the contrast of his modest clothes against the glitter of the show costumes.
Indeed, reframed for contemporary audiences Moulin Rouge’s spectacular musical numbers, high-angled singing/dancing shots, heightened colour and costumes, are consciously styled as Hollywood musicals and MGM Broadway Melodies, recalling e.g. RKO’s Top Hat (1935), MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). This parody of classic cinema confirms Feuer’s notion of contemporary redefining of the musical as nostalgic in its ironic conservatism (Altman 1986: 173).
Luhrmann also integrates iconic musical numbers to move the narrative forward. For example, as Christian first enters the Moulin Rouge, rapid editing cuts to the music in highly choreographed shots of the visual excesses of the dancers and costumes. In contrast, the sound fades and Satine descends like a ‘sparkling diamond’. In top hat, red lipstick and glittering diamante costume she sings, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, in direct homage to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, mirroring the themes of gender exploitation in both films. Christian’s simultaneous voice-over, progresses this theme further as he narrates falling in love with Satine at the same moment as his rival, The Duke, Zidler’s rich investor.
In this coming-of-age, paper-thin plot, the aesthetic conventions of the Hollywood musical’s two character opposites merge, with Satine and Christian diametrically opposed, the fallen courtesan and bourgeois artist finally sharing their love through song and dance (Altman 1986: 200).
But this oppositional structuring also derives from theatrical melodrama. A product of the Theatre Licensing Act banning the spoken word in popular theatres (Gledhill, 1987), the melodrama, from the Greek melos (melody) and French drame, developed in the eighteenth century as theatre accompanied by music. With its strong emotionalism, moral polarisation, dark plottings and overt villainy (Brooks 1995: 11–12) melodrama’s emblematised characters were not psychologically motivated but rather personified the clash of good and evil as in a medieval morality play.
In Moulin Rouge we thus identify the helpless heroine Satine victimised by the Duke’s villainy but saved by the innocent hero Christian, as implied in his name, and virtuous love triumphs over financial and sexual exploitation. The stagey cinematic style of Moulin Rouge also draws on both the musical and the melodramatic aesthetic for, what Luhrmann defined as, ‘theatricalised cinema’ achieving ‘a cinematic form … where the audience participate’ (DVD commentary). Audiences are encouraged to recognise reframed lyrics, classical films and musical numbers as well as songs from 1980–90s music video culture such as Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Elton John’s Now You’re in the World. The lyrics propel the plot onwards in a simultaneously representational and ironic way engaging the audiences’ participation.
Furthermore, audience participation is inscribed through the process of producing a show. As Christian works on the show with Toulouse Lautrec’s team, the generic lexicon of backstage theatre traditions, as well as lyrics from The Sound of Music, draw attention to its artifice. This cinematically inscribes spectators as theatre audiences to reiterate their participation and the illusion of community engagement in what Jane Feuer identifies as the folk art legacy of the musical, which foregrounds the celebratory spirit of the backstage tradition of the ‘show within a show’ (Altman 1986: 168).
But the staged settings, audience participation and inscribing of cinema spectators at proscenium distance, also reiterate melodrama’s lack of invisible fourth wall on stage where actors faced towards the audience in direct address, like the traditional ‘He’s behind you!’ of pantomime. Likewise, the performers in film musicals address the inscribed spectators/diegetic audiences directly through the song and choreographed dance routines and this artifice breaks the realism and dialogue-led, linear narrative flow (Altman 1986: 168– 71). Audiences engage in this for the pleasure of song and dance. Mayer and Day-Mayer (2001) argue that this function derives from the American stage melodramas and silent cinema such as the conventions of inserting musical interludes/dances in The Great Train Robbery and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the musical numbers also shift focus from the forward linearity of the classical plot to the verticality of emotions underlying the dialogue. Altman defines this dual focus as the structuring principle for the plot rather than the singularly linear classical narrative. Hence, as in melodrama, the heightened excess of dance, movement, music and lyrics conveys non-dialogue-led expressions of emotional truth and dramatic conflicts.
One of the finest examples of both a pleasurable and thematically effective choreographed sequence in Moulin Rouge is the scene in which Satine visits the jealous Duke to ensure he finances the show. As they wait, the cast perform a dance, which mirrors the main plot while functioning as a self-contained piece of entertainment. In creating this evocative and layered song and dance scenario, sound director Marius de Vries juxtaposed an Argentinian tango for choreographer John O’Donnell’s emotionally charged dance sequence, with the principal dancer narrating the story. In a synchronised collage of words, song, dance and music, it tells of a man who, falling in love with a prostitute, is consumed with jealousy betrayal and rage as she tangos erotically with the clients.
The soundtrack is overlaid with the narrator singing Sting’s Roxanne intercut with shots of Satine visiting the Duke. A further tension intersects this as Christian sings of his jealousy, providing a third musical and visual layer and building the tension to an emotional and visual crescendo. As the Duke imprisons Satine in a diamond necklace, she cannot reciprocate his love so he attempts to sexually force her. She flees to Christian and the heightened musical resolution descends to dialogue as they optimistically pronounce their love. This scene thus progresses the narrative while functioning independently to deepen the emotional range beyond dialogue.
Feuer notes that Hollywood comedy musicals, in developing from traditions of vaudeville and stage musicals, led to generic expectations of spontaneity, celebratory spirit and heightened optimism (Altman 1986: 162). But while Moulin Rouge’s resolution celebrates the lovers’ union, it is also a story of tragic ‘love’ following conventions of nineteenth century melodramatic novels, plays, operas, such as Trilby, Les Dame aux Camelia, La Traviata and La Boheme (an opera Luhrmann had produced). And in the final scenes, Satine, behind the stage façade, melodramatically collapses with tuberculosis, coughing blood.
Melodrama in its heightened intensity and pathos, functions as a cultural myth in apprehending spiritual truth or emotional desire that lie beyond words and the ordinary in which ‘the true subject is hidden and masked’ (Brooks 1995: 5). The shots backstage of Christian holding the dying Satine, are intercut by stills of the cast removing their masks or exposing the artifice of their stage paint, streaked by tears. And as words become inadequate Christian’s cry can only allude to his grief and loss, as we witness a melodramatic tableau of Satine’s death.
The melodramatic pathos of Satine’s death however does raise feminist questions about Moulin Rouge’s polarised positioning of women: the Madonna/whore dichotomy which meant that, within nineteenth-century conventions, a courtesan or fallen woman like Satine, unsuitable for a bourgeois hero, has to die. Reading Sally Potter’s avantgarde film Thriller, which deconstructs the objectivity/subjectivity of young seamstress Mimi in La Boheme, E. Ann Kaplan concludes that Mimi had to die because ‘an old seamstress would not be considered the proper subject of a love story’ (Kaplan 1990: 160). Like Moulin Rouge’s backstage seamstresses, old age is an anathema to romance. Satine in Moulin Rouge, like Mimi, is sacrificed for the life of the male artist. And while Luhrmann’s postmodern resolution exposes these contradictions through irony and excess, it offers a less satisfactory modernist reading than, for example, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), which reframes Victorian codes more sympathetically for Ada, her nineteenth-century protagonist, who lives to survive her fall from grace.
However, Moulin Rouge’s concern with the commodification of culture and sexuality, does offer a postmodern challenge to traditional repressions. Luhrmann’s ironic musical reframing of Like a Virgin, for example, references Madonna as a powerful signifier for reclaiming historicised female passivity in her reconstructing the prostitute’s clothing for acceptable mainstream fashion and ironically links Satine to this rebellion. Furthermore, Pam Cook’s progressive readings of Gainsborough costume melodramas, demonstrate that female audiences also identify pleasurably with fallen women, such as Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (1945), who although dies at the end, maintains pleasurable subjectivity through rebellion (1996: 59). The melodramatic excesses of female deviant behaviour and the punishing endings expose the contradictions of the classical narrative and exceed the patriarchal ideological status quo. Hence in Moulin Rouge we could sympathise with Satine’s rebellion of her prescribed position rather than see her as punished as a fallen woman.
Audiences from this perspective can engage both with the traditional pathos of Satines’ death, classically presented in the extreme close-up on Christian holding her as she whispers to him to write a story, while also maintaining a modern ironic distance, visualised in the extreme long shots which track back to his garret for ‘the end’ of the story.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA, Australia. Production Company: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, Bazmark Films. Director: Baz Luhrmann. Producers: Fred Baron, Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann. Screenwriters: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce. Cinematographer: Donald McAlpine. Editor: Jill Bilcock. Original Music: Craig Armstrong. Sound Director: Marius de Vries. Choreographer: John O’Donnell. Cast: Nicole Kidman (Satine), Ewan McGregor (Christian), John Leguizamo (Toulouse-Lautrec), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (English Duke).]
Rick Altman, ‘The American Film Musical: Paradigmatic Structure and Mediatory Function’, in Genre: The Musical, London & New York, Routledge, 1986, pp. 197–207.
Philip Bell, ‘Moulin Rouge’, in Geoff Mayer and Keith Beatty (eds), The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand, London, Wallflower Press, 2007, pp. 203–11.
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.
Pam Cook, ‘Neither here Nor There: National Identity in Gainsborough Costume Drama’, in Andrew Higson (ed.), Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, London, Cassell, 1996, pp. 51–65.
Jane Feuer, ‘The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment’, in Rick Altman (ed.), Genre: The Musical, New York & London, Routledge, 1986, pp. 159–74.
Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, BFI, London, 1987.
E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, New York and London, Routledge, 1990, pp. 154–61.
David Mayer and Helen Day-Mayer, ‘A “Secondary Action” or Musical Highlight? Melodic Interludes in Early Film Melodrama Reconsidered’, in Richard Abel and Rick Altman (eds), The Sounds of Early Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 220–31.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.