This is a story about love. And that is the basic summary of one of the most dazzling and sumptuous movie musicals in modern cinema. Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as a pair of star-crossed lovers at the titular Moulin Rouge, this evocative film has captured the hearts of audiences ever since its release in 2001. Ultimately, this film has stood the test of time because it is a testament to the enduring power of love itself.
Warning: Spoiler alert for Moulin Rouge! below.
Even though this is one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century, the film actually begins in turn of the century Paris with a young writer named Christian remembering his love affair that happened the year before. As the film begins, Christian states almost immediately that his love, a beautiful courtesan named Satine, is already, unfortunately, dead. Despite that tragic passing, Christian begins typing on his typewriter as a way of preserving the memory of his epic love affair. It is fortunate that Christian wrote their story because it is a beautiful love story that is just about as tragic as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
As a period drama, Moulin Rouge! has numerous cultural references throughout it, which reveals how love is universal regardless of the time period in which any given love story unfolds. Moulin Rouge! is a special film because the love affair between Christian and Satine takes place in 1899, but the music references a wide variety of artists and eras. In fact, the film feels like it could take place in the twenty-first century through its use of music like the title number from The Sound of Music and “Your Song” by Elton John. Therefore, Moulin Rouge! combines artistic elements from both the past and the current present moment to enchant audiences with a love story that feels both modern and classical.
After Christian’s initial typing, a vast majority of the film is a flashback of the romance between Christian and Satine at the Moulin Rouge in 1899. Christian is a young Bohemian who goes to Paris while believing in freedom, beauty, truth, and, above all things, love. He then meets a variety of eccentric Bohemian characters who share his idealistic perspective on life (that even includes a visit from a Green Fairy who sings “The hills are alive with the sound of music”). His newfound friends take him to the Moulin Rouge, where the entire nightclub becomes dazzled by “the Sparkling Diamond—Mademoiselle Satine.”
As soon as Satine starts singing, there is actually a brief shot of Satine fainting while wearing a different costume. That is actually a very clever usage of foreshadowing for Satine’s unfortunate death that occurs near the end of the film.
After that brief but pivotal shot, Satine sparkles with her own rendition of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Later on, during that same number, she tells Harold Zidler (the owner of the Moulin Rouge) that she wants to be “a real actress” rather than simply a courtesan. After changing into another colorful costume, she meets Christian for the first time (initially, though, she believes that he is a duke). The two dance provocatively and seductively, and then Satine reprises her musical number before gasping for breath, and falling from her trapeze. That sad occurrence is yet another example of foreshadowing for Satine’s death.
After Satine and Christian meet in the Elephant room for a romantic poetry reading, Satine assumes that she and Christian would do something more “physical.” Some confusion ensues, but Christian then serenades Satine with the Elton John classic “Your Song” as a way of expressing his love and devotion to her. Then a miracle happens…she falls in love! (However, she did believe that Christian was a duke, and then Satine becomes horrified after she finds out that he is actually a penniless writer).
After that shocking discovery, the audience experiences even more dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows more than what the characters do on-screen, when the real Duke finally arrives. Satine, Christian, Harold, and some of Christian’s Bohemian friends perform a rushed last-minute musical number called “Spectacular Spectacular,” which is actually a parallel story to the main plot of Moulin Rouge! as a film overall. That is because the courtesan is like Satine, the sitar player is like Christian, and the villainous Duke is like the evil Maharajah who wants to go about his evil plan.
As the people at the Moulin Rouge prepare for the opening night of Spectacular Spectacular, romantic complications arise as the passion between Christian and Satine intensifies. The Duke might appear to be simple-minded, but he is still the villain. In fact, during the musical number entitled, “El Tango de Roxanne,” he realizes that Christian is like the sitar player and that Satine tricked the Duke into believing that she loved him. Desperate for an escape from the treacherous Duke, Christian and Satine consider elopement (except for the fact that Satine is literally dying from consumption, an outdated term now known in modern times as tuberculosis). Satine is forced into hating Christian even though she truly loves him, but Harold Zidler actually says that she has to “hurt him to save him.”
Feeling emotionally distressed, Christian feels the cold stab of jealousy before returning to the Moulin Rouge one last time. During the opening night of Spectacular Spectacular, he insists that he should pay Satine since she is a courtesan, but the show still had to go on.
As Satine struggles to get on the stage, Christian repeatedly wants to pay her, and then they both appear on stage together at the finale of the show. They then share a powerful performance of the song, “Come What May,” which Christian wrote for Satine as they carried about their romance secretly earlier on in the film. It then looks as if they will live happily ever after…
However, since this is a tragic love story, that was not the case for the ending of Moulin Rouge! Satine succumbs to her illness and leaves Christian devastated and heartbroken.
Moulin Rouge! actually has several instances throughout the film in which it feels meta-fictional because it is essentially a love story about other love stories! In part, this is because the plot of Moulin Rouge! is very similar to the opera La Bohème. Within that famous opera, one of the most obvious similarities between the opera and this beloved film is the simple fact that they are both tragic romances and that they both feature Bohemians who are idealistic as well as dogmatic. Rodolfo and Mimi also fall in love in La Bohème, and that adds to the similarity between the opera and Moulin Rouge! Additionally, Mimi suffers from tuberculosis, just like Nicole Kidman’s character Satine. Finally, Mimi does suffer an untimely and unfortunate death, and Rodolfo ends the opera just as heartbroken as Christian when he holds the dead Satine in his arms while weeping uncontrollably.
Nevertheless, the love affair between Christian and Satine lives on thanks to the beauty of the written word. It is a story that takes a classic opera and partially modernizes the famous tale into a contemporary musical that also references twentieth-century pop culture to create one of the best movie musicals of all time. On her dying breath, Satine says, “Tell our story, Christian.” He pays respects to his love by writing his story the following year. Because of the power of words, the love between Christian and Satine endures. It is indeed “a story about love…a love that will live forever!”
Previously Published on Mindfray