Moulin Rouge (2001)

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Love is Like Oxygen

It only happens once in a while. Sometimes, years will go by in between my experiencing such a moment of cine-gasm. But, while watching Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann’s uber-musical, I was so enthralled that I forgot to breathe. For about five minutes, in fact. I’m sorry if you find this hyperbolic or indeed absurd, but true cinephilia oft times involves the spectatorial transcendence of basic bodily functions.

The film focuses on the love that develops between Christian (played by Ewan McGregor), a young Bohemian writer, and Satine (played by Nicole Kidman), the head courtesan at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. When an evil Duke puts up the money for a new musical spectacular that will make Satine both a star and a legitimate actress, his implict purchase of her sexual favors threatens Christian’s timeless, transcendent love for her.

American critics will tell you that Moulin Rouge is a mediocre film, if not worse. In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann argues, “The net result of all this cinematic whirling, of the ‘wrong’ music and of the parodic plot, is that nothing at all in the film moves us.” In The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell manages to be both sexist and ageist in his diatribe against the film’s strategies: “Young audiences, especially girls, will feel as if they had found a movie that was calling them by name.” I am neither particularly young—I’m 33—nor female, so therefore I feel empowered to urge you not to believe these critics!

You might think Moulin Rouge is one of the most complex films ever made (which I do), or hate the film and walk out in the first half-hour, as many people have each time I’ve seen the film (I’ve been every day this week). I can understand someone who encounters Moulin Rouge’s hyper-kinetic musical numbers—all crafted out of pop songs which span the 20th Century—and leaves in revulsion. I myself tend not to like musicals very much; their stylistically aggressive embrace of singing and dancing often masks their ideological endorsement of a banal status quo. Take The Wizard of Oz, for example: here’s a musical in which a heroic Odysseyan girl escapes the drudgery of Depression-era Kansas to journey through Hollywood (uh, I mean “Oz”), only to be told at the end that there’s no place like home. It’s back to dreary Kansas for you, my pretty.

But Moulin Rouge is a sort of anti-musical in this regard. It relies on musical numbers not for their ability to forward traditional narratives, but instead to elicit emotional responses without coherence. For example, when Christian begins working on the new musical, he solves the creators’ impasse—finishing the line, “The hills are alive…”—by belting out only the first two lines from The Sound of Music: “The hills are alive with the sound of music. / With songs they have sung for a thousand years.”

In a sense, this second line is the film’s organizing dogma. In the guise of a myriad of songs (from the 1940’s “Nature Boy” to the 1990’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), popular music will keep the characters—and us spectators in the audience—alive. But since we already know them so well, these songs merely need to be referenced, not performed in their totality. These songs are like the air that we breathe, fully accessible to us at some other level beyond consciousness.

The best example of this is, appropriately enough, the moment when I stopped breathing. Christian returns to Satine to find out if she really loves him. She scoffs at the idea of love, to which he replies, for the second time in the film that “love is like oxygen.” Apropos of my opening gambit, if love is like oxygen, then the cinema, the great modern deliverer of representations of love, must be like water; without either we’d surely die. Christian presses on, citing song lyrics that celebrate love, such as The Beatles’ “All you need is love,” Blondie’s “I was meant for loving you, baby” from the song “Call Me,” and U2’s “In the name of love.” Satine replies similarly, singing fragments from songs that question the benefits of love, such as Paul McCartney’s “(You’d think people would have had enough of) silly love songs.”

By the end of the number, the thrust of Christian’s love songs have overpowered the parry of Satine’s anti-love songs, such that they now sing in tandem, belting out Whitney Houston’s “And I will always love you.” Luhrmann accompanies this acoustic medley with aggressive film images: the camera spins around the lovers as they embrace, à la Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, while the man in the moon—Georges Melies’ mind you—looks lovingly down upon them. These five or so minutes represent for me one of the most joyous occasions I’ve ever had at the movies. Rarely has a film achieved such an emotional effect by so deftly combining its visual and aural registers with such virtuosity.

In its fragmented yet emotionally powerful use of musical numbers, Moulin Rouge thus offers nothing short of a solution to the crisis of post-modern culture. In Waiting for Godot, a modernist play written in post-World War II Paris, two men stand on the stage and re-invent love as a way of fixing their inability to communicate with one another. Their faltering use of language—one says, “Let’s go,” they agree, but then they do not move—is only overcome by their perseverance with one another in the face of a cold and indifferent world.

Baz Luhrmann’s musical proposes a similar solution, only this time through shards of popular music instead of Beckett’s play with linguistic fragments. For this reason, Moulin Rouge is post-modern, taking the intellectual crisis in language from Waiting for Godot and re-situating it in a language—popular show tunes—that are accessible to all. The film introduces us to the celebrated energy of the Moulin Rouge’s floorshow, to the beat of the Miami Sound Machine’s “The Rhythm of the Night.” One of the crew tries to tell Christian never to fall in love with a prostitute, “because it always ends badly,” choosing to perform his message via a tango danced to the music of Sting’s “Roxanne.” The owner of the nightclub who tries to convince the Duke that Satine is confessing her sins (so that she can once again feel virginal for his pleasure) does so via—yep, you guessed it—Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” And the song goes on….

Unfortunately, this astonishing method is not employed to support any critical position beyond the love-conquers-all theme. While the film’s embrace of emotion works fine when directed at the white, heterosexual love between Christian and Satine, the rest of the characters serve merely as slaves to this purpose. In one case, that of a character named Le Chocolat (“The Chocolate One”), a black performer at the Moulin Rouge, this is quite literally so. Chocolat twice in the film protects Satine’s well-being: once he catches her when she faints while atop a high swing at the Moulin Rouge, another time he knocks the evil Duke unconscious before he is able to rape her. In each case, it becomes clear that Chocolat’s desire for Satine is as great as Christian’s, but the film is unwilling to entertain the possibility that Chocolat is anything other than a big, black body who asexually serves his white master, Satine. This is as racist here as it is in any other Hollywood liberal assimilationist fantasy, like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Other marginalized peoples in the film suffer the same fate as Chocolat. Toulouse Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo) is a gay Hispanic man who initiates Satine and Christian’s reconciliation at the end of the film by screaming, “The greatest thing you’ll ever know is love….” A woman dwarf, straight out of a Fellini film, drops a sand bag on the head of the Duke’s henchman, just as he is about to shoot Christian, thus completing the reunion of the film’s beautiful white people, Christian and Satine.

However, the most problematic political gesture lies in the film’s uncritical endorsement of the Puccini opera La Boheme’s treatment of women. In that opera, as in Moulin Rouge, the main character dies of consumption, allowing the male lover to live on as a famous artist, creating fictional pathos out of his suffering. As many feminist critics, and one great feminist film, Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), have pointed out, the success of male art that requires the death of real women could only be palatable in a patriarchal culture.

While Moulin Rouge is for these many reasons a disturbing film, it is, like all great works of art, complex and breathtaking. Its single-handed re-invigoration of the musical as a cinematic form is a great contribution to the history of our culture. See it today with the one that you love, and bring along an oxygen tank, because real bodies need air to live, even if yours truly and the fictional Christian do not.

– Walter Metz