It’s 1900 and the world has been swept up in the New Bohemian Revolution. In an equal and opposite reaction to the demure Victorian Era, up-and-comers are shelving convention and prudery and immersing themselves in a sensate culture where art is salvation and “truth, beauty, freedom, love!” is the cry on every revolutionary’s lips. Christian is no exception. Looking for new inspiration, the aspiring poet moves from his stark, legalistic home in London to a run-down hotel across the street from the heart of Paris nightlife—the Moulin Rouge.
Quickly befriended by a comically rag-tag group of actors and musicians, Christian finds a niche for his writing talents. Toulouse and company convince him to be their stagewriter-in-residence and to help pitch their new show to the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler, and his leading lady-of-the-night, Satine. Amidst mistaken identities and an overwhelming number of whaleboned undergarments and twirling cancan skirts, Christian’s show wins both a venue and a financier. And Satine gets embroiled in a triangle of love and jealousy with both the innocent writer and the odious benefactor. As a clever self-conscious twist, this love plot becomes the subject of the play that Christian is writing.
Staged with as many glittering lights and chorus lines as a night at Radio City Music Hall, Moulin Rouge! spotlights those who have no life outside the spotlight. And no matter whose heart gets broken and whose ideals get trampled, the show must go on.
positive elements: Moulin Rouge! goes to great lengths to distinguish between sex and love. Satine may be beautiful and have profound power over men, but she is emotionally dead until she falls in love with Christian. And the film’s definition of real love hits the bullseye: He is willing to sacrifice his career for her. He is vulnerable with her. He is willing to commit to her forever. If Satine can be pulled from her old lifestyle, Christian’s is definitely the kind of love that is powerful enough to do it. Underscored by the ironic repetition of the theme “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” this film also dismisses financial security as a substitute for real love.
spiritual content: Christian’s father is evidently a religious man, and through a handful of flashbacks, we understand that this man of faith equates any kind of passion with sin.
sexual content: What else can be expected from a show set in a cabaret/brothel? Moulin Rouge’s graphical signature is dizzying montages of thighs and corsets. No attempt is made to soften the showgirls’ job description; they make their living by getting men in bed. The clothing is scant, the dancing is seductive, and everyone is a commodity. Which is what makes Christian unique. When he and Satine first meet, he’s not even thinking about sex—he’s there to do a poetry reading and secure a venue for his show. But Satine has been trained to seduce anything that moves, so that’s what she tries to do, eventually resorting to a concocted orgasmic fit to get his attention. To Christian’s credit, he is embarrassed rather than aroused by her demonstration and does everything he can to retain his composure, even when she grabs his crotch. Finally, he disarms her by singing to her—thus beginning the anachronistic barrage of pop tunes turned show tunes that weaves throughout the film—and the encounter ends without a sexual tryst. (Unfortunately, Christian and Satine eventually consummate their relationship, but this fact is downplayed in keeping with the idea that love is more than just sex.)
violent content: Most of this occurs near the end of the film, after the Duke threatens to kill Christian. A hit man is prevented from shooting Christian when a dancer drops a sandbag on his head. The Duke tries to shoot the young hero, and is punched in the face by one of the good guys. Perhaps most disturbing is the violent way the Duke tries to force himself on Satine, only to be thwarted by a well placed knuckle sandwich from a Moulin Rouge bouncer.
crude or profane language: Next to none. “D–n” is voiced once.
drug and alcohol content: Shortly after Christian arrives in Paris, his artsy new friends introduce him to absinthe, a hallucination-inducing beverage. At the Moulin Rouge, Satine’s suite has a liquor tray, and it is assumed (though not often shown) that alcohol consumption is a part of the nightclub atmosphere.
conclusion: As may be expected from the director of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! makes an intrigue of a classic storyline by juxtaposing centuries and cultures. And this time, it’s not modern teenagers speaking Shakespearean English that throws the audience off guard. It’s the prostitutes and their patrons who keep breaking out in song. Part silly spoof, part witty criticism of Broadway style, the film succeeds because it doesn’t take its own musical theater too seriously. The effect is likely to appeal to both fans and detractors of showtunes.
In the same way, the fact that the plot is yet another retelling of the love-versus-money triangle could feel tired. But the story-within-a-story effect (Christian’s stage show exactly parallels Satine’s real-life drama) mocks itself just enough to remind viewers that there’s really something to these stories that we tell over and over.
With all these clever contrasts, there’s just one I don’t understand. Moulin Rouge! has many artistic layers, and it even has some valid moral points. But the forms it uses to convey these—musical theater and a tour through 10- and 20-year-old pop hits—will probably be more familiar to twenty-somethings and parents than they will to teens. So what’s up with the music video “Lady Marmalade” being splashed all over MTV? Touting teen superstars including Christina Aguilera, the video is linked not to the film’s characters or story, but to just the crudest and flashiest of its images. My fear is that teens will head to the theater looking for their musical superheroes and instead get an eye full of prostitution in all its “glory.” Positive messages notwithstanding, the sexual images that Moulin Rouge! parades before viewers are far too graphic for a film being targeted at teens.