Twenty years ago, Baz Luhrmann ambitiously sought to resurrect the movie musicals of eras past. The result? The spectacular, spectacular that is 2001’s Moulin Rouge! Between its dazzling aesthetics, addictive pop soundtrack, and sweeping romance (carried off by career-defining performances from Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor), Moulin Rouge! developed an enduring following. The film still glitters, two decades later.
The film tells the story of a soulful poet and writer, Christian, who falls in love with the beautiful courtesan and star of Paris’ famous Moulin Rouge cabaret, Satine. Satine dreams of being a great actress. Christian dreams of creating great art. And a villainous Duke covets Satine’s love and is hell-bent on winning her at any cost. Baz Luhrmann wrote and directed the film, that—in addition to Kidman and McGregor—features an all-star cast including John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, and Richard Roxburgh. Moulin Rouge! enchanted audiences and critics alike upon its release. The film received eight Academy Award nominations (winning two) and features on several greatest films lists.
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Moulin Rouge! marks the third film in Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain Trilogy,” which also includes the 1992 film Strictly Ballroom and the 1996 Romeo + Juliet. The three movies are not connected through narrative threads, but rather styling and homage. Luhrmann bridges the gap between the cinematic experience and the theatrical by dedicating each film to a particular tradition and motif of live theatre. Strictly Ballroom centers on dance, Romeo + Juliet hinges on words and poetry (fitting for the Shakespeare adaptation), and Moulin Rouge! captures the magic of song and the bombast of stage musicals. Moulin Rouge! is a particularly rich text, informed just as much by grand musical traditions of the stage as it is popular movie musicals. The film was Luhrmann’s answer to the musical tradition of Old Hollywood. That influence is evident throughout the film, along with several other unexpected musical influences you may have missed.
The largest inspiration for Moulin Rouge! was the movie musicals of the 1950s. Think Singin’ In the Rain, The King and I, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. These films featured classic Hollywood staples like bombshell leads, swoon-worthy romance set to song, and show-stopping musical numbers. Musicals used to dominate the film industry and Baz Luhrmann looked to that tradition to inform his own film. The musical styling of the film mirrors how original Hollywood musicals would model themselves after the popular music of the day.
But it’s more than just the music that connects Moulin Rouge! to the heyday of Hollywood. American films from the ’40s to the ’60s relished in fantasy and spectacle. The dance numbers were bigger. The sets were richer. Again, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes comes to mind, with allusions in Satine’s big opening number. The film’s cabaret setting imitates the showgirl-studded numbers of Anything Goes and Some Like It Hot.
Moulin Rouge!, with its color and splendor, also evokes the aquatic fantasies of Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid. An Esther Williams production feels vast, on the merits of the massive swimming pool set pieces and the coordination of talented performers alongside one magnetic star. Esther is the object of fantasy as she floats through a gaggle of elegant swimmers, embodying her title of “Neptune’s Gorgeous Daughter.” Moulin Rouge!‘s musical numbers and Satine’s mystique are similar. This is most evident in the film’s early cabaret numbers, where the Moulin Rouge dancers swirl about the dance floor in a lush display of kicks and can-can skirts. Suddenly, Satine lowers from the ceiling on a hoop as “The Sparkling Diamond,” in a direct parallel to Esther Williams. Satine is Moulin Rouge!’s answer to Esther. She roots the entire film in that glamorous, fantastical Old Hollywood aesthetic.
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Before we leave the 1950s, it would be a disservice not to point you to the other Moulin Rouge. That 1952 British dramatic film starred Zsa Zsa Gabor bears a striking resemblance to the 2001 musical. Both films circle bohemian ideals, the allure of burlesque, and the tragedy of unrequited love.
Both the 1952 and 2001 versions of the film indulge in the decadent melodrama of live theatre. Fittingly, Luhrmann’s entire “Red Curtain Trilogy” utilizes classical texts and influences of the oldest performance arts. Moulin Rouge! is certainly no exception. Burlesque and the bombast of cabaret and traditional Broadway musicals blends with the sensibilities of Greek tragedies, like Madea (for madness and jealousy) and the mourning of lost love in Orpheus and Eurydice. The film also offers a major nod to the wide genre of Bollywood. The third act sets the show-within-a-show in India. The sweeping musical romance of Bollywood also influences the film. The performance is a display of Bollywood-inspired dance, song, and design.
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La Boheme, and the spectacle of opera in general, also inform Moulin Rouge! The particulars of Satine’s tragic death, the love story between her and Christian, and the plights of the side characters shown through the romanticized bohemian lens are straight out of the Opera 101 textbook. Many modern films have taken on opera and adapted it for new audiences, but few pay homage as devoutly as Moulin Rouge!
On a more intimate character note, it is impossible to watch Satine without recalling the tragic beauty of Marilyn Monroe. Satine enters the film on the dazzling refrain of Monroe’s famous number, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and is an object of utter fantasy. To the patrons of the Moulin Rouge, Satine is a sparkling diamond and an untouchable sort of perfection. Satine knows that to move ahead in the world of men, she must put on the mask that reflects their desire. (“Wilted flower, bright and bubbly, or smoldering temptress…”) She uses that fantasy to move ahead.
Like Marilyn, Satine dreams of being an artist and a great actress. More importantly, she’s seeking the sanctuary of love. Marilyn was eventually consumed by an industry that demanded so much from her, and Satine’s death works in parallel. Satine is such a quintessentially tragic figure that it is easy to project any tragic heroine of opera or the stage onto her. But within the context of this homage to ’50s musicals and Hollywood glamor, Marilyn stands above the rest. Satine’s character is what truly connects the classic tragedies of live performance art to the dazzle of cinematic musicals, by reaching out to Hollywood’s own sparkling diamond and illustrating the steep price performers paid.
For many viewers, Moulin Rouge! served as an unconventional entry point to the world of musicals. Twenty years later, the film still holds a prominent place in the hearts of many film lovers. And it still has the power to reach new fans. Built on a foundation of beauty and spectacle, and informed by decades of entertainment, Moulin Rouge! is an essential text for culture lovers of all stripes.