History Behind Moulin Rouge the Movie Essay

It was 1899 in Paris, France, it was the time of the Bohemian Revolution, and it was the summer of love. Christian, played by Ewan McGregor, was a writer and came to Paris to experience this revolution and be surrounded by the artists, singers, and dancers of this new Bohemian world. Little did he know that he would experience something he had never felt before but always believed in: love. Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrmann, is an exquisite movie musical based off of a real life cabaret called Moulin Rouge in Montmartre.

The movie tells the story of the love triangle between Christian, Satine aka the “Sparkling Diamond” of the Moulin Rouge, played by Nicole Kidman, and The Duke. Although Christian and Satine are fictional characters, the story includes real life characters such as Harold Zidler, the co-mastermind of the Moulin Rouge and Toulouse-Lautrec, a famous French artist. Moulin Rouge is a great look into what life was like back in Paris in 1900, but also adds in the love story between Christian and Satine to make for a great movie musical.

In the beginning of the movie, Christian’s optimistic love shines some light into Satine’s dark materialistic reality. To make a living, Satine became a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge. She gets paid for making men believe what they want to believe, so she sells her body to make money. She mistakenly became attracted to Christian for his pure and optimistic belief in love. Seeing that Christian did not have a lot of money, she becomes hesitant of loving him because he would not be able to support her and her dreams of being an actress. With Christian’s pure and optimistic belief of love, he captures Satine’s heart by loving her for who she really is, not for what she is. Although Satine dies in the end of the movie, Christian learns that true love lasts forever even through death. Harold Zidler, who is not a fictional character, is the man who helped to run the real Moulin Rouge cabaret. In the film, and in real life Paris, Zidler was the man who was, “a ‘brother’ to the artists and the man in the shadows who watched over the dancers and the rest of the personnel with a benevolent eye and ruled with an iron fist” (History).

In the film he is the one who is in charge of making sure everything goes perfectly at the cabaret and makes sure all his dancers, especially Satine, know what they are supposed to do and who they should impress that night. Not only did he run the Moulin Rouge he was also a showman and performed with his dancers in the shows. Toulouse-Lautrec was also an important person when it comes to the cabaret in Paris. In the film he does not have a huge role other than help Christian get inside the Moulin Rouge and find a way for him to meet Satine. In Paris in the 1900’s, though, he is said to have been “the eyes of the Moulin Rouge.” Toulouse-Lautrec attended every evening show when the cabaret opened; and as mentioned before he was an artist, so every night he would sit in a corner and draw the dancers accompanied by a glass of absinthe (History).

The fact about the absinthe is also in the movie; Toulouse-Lautrec, Christian, and a few others take a shot of absinthe before they head to the Moulin Rouge one night and the next few minutes of the film are just filled with pure craziness and hallucinations. His artwork, though, was extremely important in the success of the Moulin Rouge. “In 1891, he drew the first advertising poster for the Moulin Rouge, which today remains the best known image of the Moulin Rouge around the world” (History). His work is still famous today and without him the Moulin Rouge in Paris would not be as well known as it is today. The dancers of the Moulin Rouge were masters of the “cancan.” One of the stars and also known as “Queen of the Cancan” was Louise Weber, but her nickname was “La Goulue.”

She is not specifically in the film, but in a biography about her, it states that, “one evening when she was dancing a frenetic cancan, between two cartwheels she spotted the Prince of Wales, who had come to spend an evening on his own at the Moulin Rouge, and called out, with the Parisian cheek for which she was well know, ‘Hey, Wales! The champagne’s on you?’” (History). La Goulue is relatable to Satine in the film, because Satine was also the star and best dancer and she spotted Christian the first night he was there and while she was dancing called him out in front of everyone who was in attendance at the Moulin Rouge that evening. Moulin Rouge is one of Baz Luhrmann’s best films. The movie came out in June 2001 and has won many awards and is one of the best movies in the musical genre. The set design, costumes, casting of roles, and music all is so perfectly put together to create this brilliant film.

Luhrmann, who also co-wrote the movie with Craig Pearce, traveled to Paris with Pearce and the production designer to conduct historical research and write the synopsis for the movie. “To find ways to depict 19th century Paris and the Moulin Rouge as it may have felt to its audience then – at the cutting edge of sex, music, dance, theater and modern thinking – the filmmakers immersed themselves in the neighborhood, venues and culture of their story” (Luhrmann). Through their research and learning about the culture, they came to understand that the Moulin Rouge was a club that brought all different classes together and Pearce quotes that is the equivalent of “Studio 54 in New York in the late 70’s; a place where the rich and the powerful can mix with the young, the beautiful and the penniless” (Luhrmann). This is shown in the movie because we see the powerful, such as The Duke, and then Christian who is just a writer, come to the same club to experience the same thing, women and entertainment.

The first half an hour of the movie is nonstop music, dancing, lights, and just absolutely craziness. Audiences are not given a chance to “relax” and just slowly take the movie in; it is fast paced and keeps the movie viewer on their toes just waiting for what will come next. In a movie critique, shortly after it came out in 2001, the movie reviewer describes Moulin Rouge as “grandiose, glorious, absinthe-soaked excess.” When filming, Luhrmann wanted everything to be over the top and wanted more out of the production; more songs, more sound, more color, more everything (Kaplan C.D.). This is what it was like in the real cabaret, the dancing and songs were all so intense and crazy so the men would be fully entertained and never get bored. There was a lot going on in Paris in the late 1880’s and 1890’s. The Eiffel Tower was built, the first cinematographic screening was shown by the Lumiere brothers, and the most famous cabaret opened its doors.

“The public came in mass to discover this extravagant place with its huge dance floor, mirrors everywhere, and galleries that were the last word in elegance, to mix with the riffraff and girls of easy virtue” (History). The Moulin Rouge was a place for the rich and poor men to come for dancing, music, and entertainment from the ladies; it is said to have been an atmosphere of “total euphoria.” This was a time where workers, aristocrats, artists, and the middle-class could all gather together to experience cabarets, music-halls, and other night time activities. As mentioned before, this movie takes place during the Bohemian Revolution. This revolution was not a revolution of fighting, but a revolution of art and culture. It was a time for artisits, poets, writer, singers, dancers, and anyone else who wanted to express themselves to show off their talents and be recognized. These were the “children of the revolution” (Moulin Rouge).

In the beginning scenes of Moulin Rouge, Christian is told that to really be a child of the revolution, he has to believe in beauty, freedom, truth, and most importantly love. Which of course he believes in love, it is what he lives for and as stated earlier, he is given the chance to experience love for the first time. Not only is the movie based off of the real cabaret in Paris, but it is also partly based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and partly on the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (IMDb). The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is somewhat like the story between Christian and Satine. Orpheus is said to have been the best musician that ever lived and until he met Eurydice, he lived his simply and carelessly.

Orpheus and Eurydice fell in love and it meant everything to both of them but someone else wanted Eurydice’s beauty and wanted her but she did not care for this other man. To make a long story short, she ends up dying and Orpheus tries to get her back from the underworld but could not save her; all he had left was the love they once had (“Orpheus”). For Christian, he lost Satine and would never get her back again but what he got from her death was a story of true love that he has to share with the world. Satine was already dying before she fell in love with Christian, but at least she was able to die knowing what it was like to be in love.

The opera La Traviata is another love story that ends tragically. Violetta, who is a courtesan, claims that love means nothing to her until she meets a young man named Alfredo which makes her then wonder if he could be the man that she could love. In the end of the story, though, Violetta is diagnosed with tuberculosis and does not have long to live and dies at Alfredo’s feet (“La Traviata”). This opera, the myth of Orpheus, and Moulin Rouge, are all similar in the way that the woman never really believed in love until they met that one man that changed their views on love, there are challenges to face one the man and woman fall in love, and then it is the woman who dies in end leaving their lovers all alone. Each story is a little different but the same basic idea, from the opera and Greek myth, are apparent in the film.

From twentieth century Paris, the Bohemian Revolution, the myth of Orpheus, Harold Zidler, and other historical moments, Moulin Rouge is a one of a kind musical film that is an amazing piece of work put together by Luhrmann. Knowing the history behind the film makes it exciting to watch and understand what it was like back in Paris in 1899.

Works Cited

“The History of the Moulin Rouge and its Shows.” Moulin Rouge.fr. Le Bal du Moulin Rouge, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.
Kaplan, C.D. Rev. of Moulin Rouge, by Baz Luhrmann. Louisville Eccentric Observer, Louisville, Ky.: 30 May 2001. Vol. 11, Iss. 30; pg. 21
“La Traviata.” The Metropolitan Opera. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2011. Luhrmann, Baz,, and Craig Pearce, commentary. Moulin Rouge. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001. Film. Moulin Rouge. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001. Film.

“Moulin Rouge.” IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Paleothea Myths. N.p., 10 Jan. 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

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