Moulin Rouge is the most spectacular and visually overwhelming musical I have ever seen. Somehow, Baz Lurhman, the writer and director, has crafted a sensory overloaded musical, filled with mash-ups and covers about of all things love, and yet it avoids a trite, sappy feel, mainly by ending up as a tragedy.
Here lies the difference between Lurhman’s great movie and what could have been another surface level spectacle about nothing. Love is not just a feeling, or a kiss, or a great night together, but it’s a force that changes both parties and causes them to sacrifice everything for the other person. Through all its complications, it ends up with a picture of love remarkably close to Christianity.
All About Satine
The film opens with Christian reminiscing on the love of his life, Satine, the “Sparkling Diamond” of the Moulin Rouge, who is dead. After revealing that major spoiler we move immediately to his exodus, one year ago, from a bourgeois upbringing to become a writer, pursuing Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and above all Love in the bohemian paradise of Paris. Although Christian wants to write about Love, he is at a loss having not experienced love himself.
Everything changes though when suddenly an unconscious Argentinean falls through his ceiling while running lines for ‘Spectacular Spectacular’, a musical celebrating all things bohemian. Christian quickly moves from a stand in for the narcoleptic Argentinean to the show’s writer when he powers through the group’s creative block and crafts the lyrics for the show’s big hit (a cover of “The Hills are Alive”). After coming up with the brilliant lyrics mentioned above he goes from filling in for the narcoleptic Argentinean to becoming the main writer of ‘Spectacular Spectacular’ and on his way to meet Satine, the ‘Sparkling Diamond’ of Harold Zigler’s Diamond Dogs, the can-can dancers at the Moulin Rouge.
While Christian and Toulouse-Lautrec, another actor in the play, seek out Satine to tell her of their new direction, she and Zigler are planning to romance “The Duke” who they hope will invest in the night club’s first musical and grant Satine’s greatest wish, to be a real actress. The first glimpse we have of Satine is when she is lowered from the ceiling, right in the middle of the chaos of the can-can dancers raucous routine. Satine is the show, she is the main event. Even here though, at the height of her power we also see her greatest weakness: she has Consumption (Tuberculosis) the true and greatest antagonist of the musical.
Confusion ensues when Satine thinks Christian is the Duke, taking him to her room and seducing him while he thinks he’s there to run lines for the musical. Immediately after realizing her mistake she tries to usher Christian out but the Duke is already at the door. Though she tries her best to cover her mistake he catches them together, and only an impromptu – and thoroughly camp – rehearsal saves the day and convinces him to invest. However, the secondary conflict is set, the Duke is completely infatuated with Satine while she and Christian quickly fall in love.
As the Moulin Rouge prepares to perform their first musical, which mirrors and prefigures the plot of the movie, the two lovers try to continue their secret affair under the watch of the Duke who unashamedly uses his power to hold Satine and the whole Moulin Rouge under siege. All the while TB is slowly consuming more and more of Satine’s body, and only Zigler and her stage manager know it. Conflict builds, drama gives birth to great music, love is on display in all its messiness, and in the end she still dies.
The Good Life
There are two aspects of this movie that should appeal to Christians. First we should pay attention to how they pursue ‘the good life’. The bohemians have dedicated their lives, in an almost monastic way, to the pursuit of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and above all Love. To do this they forsook all standing they had in the conventional business world, and embraced a life of poverty, community, and creative output. Nothing is more important than pursuing these ideals, and conforming their life to them.
In one especially moving scene, Toulouse-Lautrec tries to comfort Christian after Satine has sent him away by saying, “Christian, you may see me only as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being.”
As Christians, this is how we should pursue the good life – which we say is knowing and being known by God. Our examples are a man who sells all he has to buy the field housing a perfect pearl, or even God who left heaven to become a man in order to win humanity. Everyone’s path is different; however, everyone’s path to God, the good life, goes through forsaking all else – just as Christian and Lautrec did.
To Love and Be Loved
Secondly, I would be amiss to not mention the obvious theme of the movie, “The Greatest Thing You’ll Ever Learn is Just to Love and Be Loved in Return.” This is one of the first lines said in the movie, it’s screamed from the stage at the climax, and it’s also the last line in the movie. In the past few years I have heard some Christians critique popular culture’s fixation on love by saying it’s really just an emotional high that takes possession of someone, but is fickle and may blow away at any time, at which so follows the relationship. They contrast this love to the Bible, which speaks of love as a choice, a sacrifice, underlaid with loyalty (the concept of Hesed, “covenant faithfulness” in the Old Testament) which persists even past the point of emotions.
While I largely agree with these cultural critiquers (though Song of Songs doesn’t allow for a truly rationalistic account of love) so does Moulin Rouge. What does love mean here? It is something you sacrifice everything for, it’s not akin to what men feel when they pay for Satine, it’s not the obsession with power and control that the Duke calls love, but it is self sacrificing.
Perhaps most impressive about the continual repetition of this mantra is that Satine dies, and yet the musical in no way takes back its claim. Even though Satine’s death seems to also be Christian’s, he has learned to love and be loved, and though it cost him everything he could give, short of his life, it is still the greatest thing he’ll ever learn, and perhaps we’re not meant to see his suffering as tangential.
If you wanted to Rouge Christianity up a bit you could say our faith is summed up as “The Greatest Thing You’ll Ever Learn is to Love God, Your Neighbor (or your Enemy), and be Loved in Return.” And like Christian, it will cost us everything (perhaps even more than he gave) but at the end of our story – or somewhere when the pain seems overwhelming and all we want is to curse God, or death, or our version of The Duke, and die – we too can say that the greatest thing we’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. For only when we’ve learned to love and accept it in return can we say we know God.