Red Curtain Trilogy Thinkpiece 2: Time and Place at the Moulin Rouge

When I was a kid in probably second grade (it must have been, because I remember having a conversation about it the day after with a classmate in Spanish, and we went to a different classroom that year for our specials) my older sister rented Moulin Rouge! and I, being approximately eight or nine, didn’t really get it for the obvious reasons, or why she and her friend were so into Ewan McGregor singing love songs (I knew him as Obi-Wan Kenobi at that point, and, honestly, now). Then I got to middle school a few years later and I did suddenly totally get it, and then in high school I really felt like I got it, and I have gotten it more and more since the initial grasping of how wonderful the idea of a man singing about all the kind things he feels towards you could be.

Moulin Rouge! is the third installment in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy. It was released in 2001 and stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, the Sparkling Diamond, opposite Ewan McGregor’s Christian, a tragically struggling Romantic wannabe poet. Like the other two films in the Red Curtain Trilogy, this also retells a story more familiar to audiences using its medium to represent the emotional and narrative journeys of the characters. According to the director’s commentary, in the case of Moulin Rouge!, the story being retold is the Orpheus/Eurydice myth: a talented, creative young man with musical talent falls in love with a girl who is doomed to the Underworld. He creates a beautiful song and convinces those who run the Underworld to let him take her back to the land of the living with him, and he’s given this—so long as he can manage not to look at her until they’re in the light. They get really close to a happy ending, but, like in so many other myths where someone is told not to look back, he does, and the girl is gone forever, leaving the hero to live in grief. Like the opera interpretation of the myth, the story of Moulin Rouge! is told through song, primarily, though, mashups and medleys of popular songs from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Luhrmann’s translation of the myth resituates the story in the same (or similar) world of La Bohéme, another opera—which Luhrmann had previously brought to the stage, though his production placed it in the 1950s as opposed to the 1800s.

Luhrmann’s approach to many of the texts he adapts involves relocation in time and space; the more recent Great Gatsby movie keeps the setting of 1920s New York, but uses a particularly modern soundtrack; Romeo + Juliet updates the setting and costume of the characters to Verona Beach; Moulin Rouge! updates both music and setting of the myth it takes a significant inspiration from by putting it at the turn of the century Paris. While characteristic of Luhrmann’s storytelling style in general, the anachronism of this film in particular leads to some interesting play with its themes, especially given the myth in particular which is being adapted. It is dangerous in mythology to be looking backwards; Orpheus and Eurydice are doomed by an incapacity to look forward instead. The Underworld itself is a place of the past in-stasis, where there can be no moving on. In Moulin Rouge!, that Underworld is represented by the theater and its adjourning space, a bohemian world of excess and indulgence where the rich go to play and where artists and writers enhance their abilities through alcohol (and likely also drugs, but the opium culture doesn’t feature half as prominently as the use of the drink absinthe). Christian and Satine’s desires (both independent of each other and for each other) put them in the position where the past and fixation with it is detrimental to both characters’ (all characters’ in the film, by extension) well being.

On the one hand, anachronism has probably always existed, and its deliberate application, as in movies like Moulin Rouge!, provides a mode through which audiences can better access the story being told. The version of the 1890s that’s presented is much closer to our lives now than a Classical rendition of Orfeo ed Euridice would be, though even our interpretation of that Classical world would still be subject to the anachronism of one decade seeping into another. While Moulin Rouge! takes place temporally in 1899, it also takes place outside of time; because of the process of looking backwards to tell his story that Christian takes, though, it’s subject to the same issues any retrospective narrative would be: it’s impossible to tell one’s own history without anachronism in a personal sense because we reorganize events into coherent plotlines, even if we’re not trying to, and it’s impossible in the cultural sense because it’s impossible to extricate ourselves from the reality of our everyday objects even when we can remember a time when we didn’t have them. Christian’s focus on the past reinforces the problems of being trapped in looking back. The former brilliance of the Moulin Rouge has been left in ruins and rot following the presumed failure of in-show musical Spectacular, Spectacular after opening night and (again, presumably) the withdrawal of funding to the show from the slighted Duke; the bohemians who made the drinking and partying fun are gone; there is no more dancing or singing or bright lights; Christian sits surrounded by evidence of his grief, the setting and choice in giving him facial hair a reflection of his inability to move on.

Given that Christian is in pain precisely because he hasn’t moved on—that the Underworld represented by the Moulin Rouge has captured him just as much as it captured and destroyed the woman he loved—any suggestion of an optimistic or happy ending for him which would have complicated this particular thematic reading are negated. Christian doesn’t experience or undergo catharsis after typing the story (maybe that comes during the editing process). The sun doesn’t come up on a brand new day. Satine is still dead. The present and the past merge in both the narrative, as Christian provides voiceover linking his typing to the story as it’s told, and in the film’s construction from the choices made in music, costuming, and set design.

What also needs to be talked about is the enormous presence of orientalism throughout the film. While orientalism creates a fantasy version of imagined-real persons, places, and cultures, and in doing so has contributed to the creation of stereotypes about the Middle and Far East in the West, its place in this particular film extends the existing dialogue which exists in the text about anachronism, the past, and looking backwards. In fact, this movie can’t exist without its orientalism, which obviously situates it culturally as a pretty problematic text—at the same time that it fits in very well with a contemporary(ish) interpretation of the Romantic orientalist texts which Christian, as an English writer, would have been well acquainted with—if not entirely inspired by. (The focus, too, on Romanticism feels somewhat anachronistic; orientalism certainly hadn’t gone away by the late 1800s and does still very much exist, but the Romantic literary movement of England and continental Europe had largely started to give way to realism by this point.) Perhaps ironically, the orientalism as a thing which Europeans endorsed and participated in at the end of the 19th century going into the 20th is not actually anachronistic, but orientalism itself is: it treats the East as a fantasy world which is always in decay, always in excess and drought simultaneously, always conservative even when it isn’t, always exotic, always outside of the time and progress which moves Europe (and the United States). Orientalism in Moulin Rouge! is why there’s a giant elephant where Harry Ziegler plans to have Satine seduce the Duke, and in which she and Christian fall in love. It’s also why the plot and setting of Spectacular, Spectacular changes from being a bildungsroman about a young goatherd in the Alps to India, where a penniless sitar player falls in love with a courtesan only to have that love thwarted by an evil Maharaja when Christian has to create a story from the limited information the bohemians gave him in order to save himself and get the Duke to fund the musical. That the aesthetic of the in-text musical is so heavily influenced by a movement which relies on reinterpreting the other as an unchanging place of mysticism, violence, eroticism, and decay (both moral and spatial) fits in very well with the idea of preoccupation on stagnation being dangerous and detrimental. Unfortunately, the presence of orientalism in the film also contributes to the element of bright carnival fantasy; there are Indian-inspired elements to the set and costume design as the narrative dictates, but because the Moulin Rouge itself even within the film bills itself as a place where fantasies are fulfilled, it relegates these elements to the service of enlarging that fantasy. So while it makes sense both thematically and even perhaps historically for this to be a part of Moulin Rouge!, it doesn’t challenge the assumptions that orientalism makes about anyone outside of Europe.

The in-text musical mimics the plot which Christian and Satine find themselves in opposing the oppressive, jealous desire of the Duke, first as foreshadowing the plot of the rest of the film in the pitch for Spectacular, Spectacular, and then as a reflection of the characters’ actions and attempts to pursue a romantic relationship under the nose of their antagonist. Again, the past and present happen concurrently: Christian weaves the narrative as he types the events from the narrative-now, just as within the story he creates the musical loosely around what he and Satine have been doing but removing the setting to an imagined past fantasy India. There can be no future at the Moulin Rouge, and even Satine’s consumption—which is what kills her—is both a very 19th century illness as well as an indicator that attempts to leave the Moulin Rouge will be ultimately unsuccessful. The future never gets written, and even if it were, it couldn’t be fulfilled; the Duke never gets his ending with Satine or Spectacular, Spectacular, but neither do Christian and Satine, and their lives are trapped within the Underworld.

When I think of stories like Moulin Rouge! and the problems that exist in looking backwards rather than living in the moment (there’s even an issue in attempting to look too far into the future, like we’re at all capable of being fortune tellers), I feel a little hypocritical. It’s human nature to consider the past; it’s possible that obsession with the past is why we tell stories in the first place. While Christian is stuck in limbo between past and present, it bears mentioning that that’s where most of us live, especially in a time when so much has changed so rapidly for all of us, and in a world where the future is a scary place to think about. The past might not be pleasant all the time, but it can take on, as I think it does when Christian reflects on his early time at the Moulin Rouge and in his relationship with Satine, a more rosy hue; especially if you’re sitting in the physically manifested squalor of your grief in the present, the past is certainly the place where you’d prefer to be and prefer to think about. The consequences of living there—or being trapped there—are their own kind of death for the individual; while Christian is alive at the end of the film, he’s definitely not in a good place, or even one that gives comfort. The refrain of the movie is that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” and while that’s a great romantic ideal to have in mind, it doesn’t seem like it has actually helped any of the characters in a way that would have saved them from the tragedy of the film. If anything, the obsession—with love, with being in love, with having love—contributes to the overall trap of being stuck where the phrase rings most true. It’s not betrayal to a loved one to move on when they’re no longer there.

Jillian Boger

Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated “wild lawns.”