20 Years On, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001) Remains a Metatheatrical, Maximalist Masterpiece

The movie musical has been declared dead as often as the genre has roared back to life. As the new millennium started, Baz Luhrmann put an end to one such dry spell in the biggest, most bombastic way possible. Moulin Rouge! premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival (alongside Shrek, Mulholland Drive, and The Fellowship of the Ring – a legendarily eclectic programme of modern classics) and opened worldwide on 1st June. In the twenty years since, the film’s ostentatious individuality has earned it a cult classic status, many (pre-Disney-Fox merger) singalong screenings, and claim over a well-known tale and the twentieth century’s biggest pop songs. Few films know what they want to be – and succeed in delivering – with such style and substance.

Moulin Rouge! is designed to the most minute detail. Its maximalist, music-video look lives in the biggest, brashest strokes and gains coherence through this precision. These small touches heighten the film’s comedic moments (the jagged zoom in on Christian’s (Ewan McGregor) face as he realises he cannot write about love if he has never been in love, and the bell that dings as Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) beams at the Duke’s investment promise) as well as its romance (fireworks bursting only at the climax of the “Elephant Love Medley,” the montage of the first “Come What May”). The inevitable tragedy emerges in the juxtaposition of furious edits and lengthy tracking shots. The film is counted down to the millisecond – in the frenzy ending “El Tango de Roxane,” there is a cut on every half-beat in the score. Amidst it all, Luhrmann’s camera and Jill Bilcock’s edits ensure faces register the plot and emotional beats.   

The unrelenting, unrepentant spectacle of Moulin Rouge! makes it as joyous on the first watch as it is on the twentieth and supports the film’s central conceit: perennial recognisability. Repeated shots – the dancers’ legs inviting Christian into their underworld, shown twice prior to “Lady Marmelade,” and Satine’s gasps for breath constantly framed from above – return as visual motifs emphasising the pull of the “underworld” and the spectre of death hanging over its proceedings. The songs – all save “Come What May” collected and remixed from the twentieth century’s arsenal – are already familiar to viewers. By now, even the new tempos and keys of Moulin Rouge! are as iconic as the original artists’ works.

Many lyrics began spoken; before the characters burst into song in-universe the audience knows exactly what will follow. While some songs are set in the film’s hyper-reality (“Sparkling Diamonds,” “Like a Virgin,” and “The Show Must Go On”) and some go into the characters’ fantasy realms (“Your Song” and “The Elephant Love Medley”), all tell the audience exactly what words and moods to expect. In the film’s first half, the effect is whimsical; there is a knowing smile about “It’s a little bit funny” and “All you need is love.” As the film progresses, the delineation between sung and spoken scenes is sharper. Satine may sing “Today’s the day that dreaming ends” as Zidler breaks the news of her diagnosis, but it is a single phrase lost in speech. There is no room for freedom, beauty, truth, and love in the face of poverty and death.

Like these familiar images and songs, the metatheatrical, multi-layered story builds the same narrative upon itself in framing stories and plays-within-play. Audiences know from the opening shots that Christian is alone, and Satine (Nicole Kidman) is dead. As the story unfolds in flashbacks, the plot of Satine’s star vehicle – written by Christian just as he immortalises her after death – mirrors their own secret love behind the Duke’s (Richard Roxburgh) back. The ending on stage, of course, is supposed to be a triumph of true love, but the Duke’s interruption of “And in the end, does someone die?” hints to Satine’s own death moments after the final curtain. These constant foreshadowings and callbacks do not lessen the impact of Moulin Rouge!; the wonder it builds comes from its style and ability to reinvent familiar narratives.

Luhrmann cites the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice as key to the plot’s development; Christian uses his preternatural gifts of writing (as exemplified by music far ahead of its time) to win the respect of the Bohemians and the love of Satine, one of the “creatures of the underworld.” However, grand opera appears to have dramatically influenced plot, theme, and design – Lurhmann mentions his own stage productions of La Boheme (Sydney Opera House, 1993) as an inspiration for the Bohemian artist troupe. He also fell in love with Bollywood, incorporating the song and design styles into “Spectacular Spectacular,” after researching his Bollywood-inspired production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia, also 1993). In this same 2001 interview, he very quickly tosses out “Camille” as a further inspiration – a reference to the ever-morphing mythology of Marie Duplessis, most popularly known through the opera La Traviata.

While many details of Duplessis’ life remain uncertain, it is known she was born Alphonsine Plessis (later affecting the faux-aristocratic “du” prefix) in 1824, established as a courtesan by the age of 15, and famous in her time as the premiere hostess of Paris’ cultural and literary elite. It is also known that she died at the age of 23 following complications from tuberculosis – consumption, as it was politely referred to then. Through luck, timing, and the ability to court the patronage of wealthy men, she secured a lavish lifestyle within the societal confines available to her. One of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas fils, immortalised her in his novel-turn-play La dame aux camelias. It fictionalises their relationship, renaming them Marguerite and Armand. Their time together shorter and more tumultuous, plagued by her eventual ill health, and a plan to escape the vapid, empty life of a courtesan is foiled by a jealous Duke to whom Marguerite must return to support herself as Armand is earnest but penniless. Does this sound familiar?

Luhrmann has never called out Marie, Marguerite, or any of her other stage and screen names aside from this one “Camille mention. But the parallel between Dumas fils and Christian writing their dead lovers’ stories is striking. The real French author writes a novella-turned-play that frames narrator and object in a semi-fictionalised narrative, and Luhrmann’s fictional protagonist ostensibly tells the “true” events through his posthumous novel but eerily foreshadows them in the play he writes for his beloved’s star turn. It is a notable addition, as most other Camille adaptations miss this metatheatrical touch. And the women – the memorable, inspirational women – are dead.

The “Camille” narrative in its many iterations is pervasive in the Western theatrical canon, speaking to an earlier time when women’s agency through sex work was scorned unless redeemed by their true, pure love. Some have called this a seeming support of a patriarchal structure where the woman – notably a sex worker – cannot survive “objectionable.” This, however, is an incomplete reading. Luhrmann’s film draws on stories from times often cast as dream-like, fantastical, and nostalgic, but Moulin Rouge! is not blind to the thousand tiny deaths in an oppressive society. And Satine, unlike her counterparts, is the one to call Christian back, choosing love’s triumph over safety in her final moments. As her lover works through his guilt at his jealousy and abandonment of his misunderstood, societally shunned lover by memorialising her in his book, a true, raw grief sits at this bombastic film’s centre.

Moulin Rouge! was likely never meant to be a surprise. Its marvellous, larger-than-life stylings cement its unique, masterful craftsmanship, but the film scaffolds others’ songs and stories around a story whose ending is already known and mourned, making no secret of the fact. Despite this reliance on well-tread plot and familiar lyrics, the film is unmistakably its own creation, unified in its vision, unfailingly precise in its execution, and achingly sincere in its portrait of a first, lost love. This careful control allows Christian and Satine’s romance to blossom time and time again; the archetypical tale never changes, but the journey is always worth it.