Moulin Rouge! is a film filled with pop songs, can-can dancers, and absinthe-induced delusions. Although it may appear to be a light romantic comedy, at its core is a dark tragedy. The two lovers, penniless writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), are destined for failure because of a conspiring duke and terminal illness. At the start of the film, the audience sees grief-stricken Christian explain the fatal ending of their love story and reveal that Satine is dead. However, the film builds a sense of hope throughout Christian’s retelling. Not hope for him and Satine to have a happily ever after, but rather for him to begin to accept her death and look to the future.
Essentially, the film follows two timelines: the present-day Christian writing down his love story and the past when the love story takes place. Although the audience may question the relevance of the present-day timeline as all of the action and singing is featured in the past, Christian’s typing means more to the film than just transitioning from one scene to the next. According to a researcher at Harvard University, “Through narrative writing, we can gain control over painful events by exploring and reframing them in a purposeful way.” Even though Christian could try and outwit the duke, there is no way to avoid her terminal illness. Her death was inevitable and something that Christian could never prevent. Through his retelling, however, Christian regains control and is able to present the story in a way that highlights the best moments rather than being overwhelmed with the gloomy ending.
The bohemian culture portrayed throughout the film helps contribute to its message of art and healing. Rather than sticking with the original plan of the 1930s idealistic bohemia setting, director/writer Baz Luhrmann changed his mind and focused on “the commercialized bohemia of 1890/1900,” where art is created for a profit rather than artistic expression. Because the story takes place in this period, Christian is first introduced as someone who wants a career as a successful writer. At the time, the process of writing and the actual piece mean way less to him than the reception of the piece. But as the plot continues, Christian’s relationship with writing evolves. Instead of using writing to be financially successful, he uses it to help his emotional endeavors like creating a farce of a play so he can be near Satine or retelling his love story to process his pain. The purpose of his writing — his art — changes to be how he expresses himself, not how he provides for himself.
One of the biggest inspirations for this film was the Greek myth of Orpheus. After the sudden death of his wife, the legendary poet and musician Orpheus travels to the Underworld in an attempt to bring her back to life. He is able to convince Hades, the god of the Underworld, to let his wife return with him, as long as he follows one condition: Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld alone and not look back to see if his wife is following him. Just before he exits the Underworld, Orpheus turns around to see his wife disappear forever. In an interview with The Guardian, Luhrmann explains how Moulin Rouge! incorporated this myth:
“It didn’t take me too long to realise that I was going to be walking through the Orphean journey, the transition of youthful idealism to when you realise that there are things bigger than you — people die, some relationships cannot be — and you are destroyed by that. The scars of that experience and that loss allow you to grow internally and spiritually, and that’s the adult journey.”
This journey after uncontrollable events is exactly what the present-day timeline with Christian encounters. Whether it was due to her terminal illness or the duke, Satine would never have a happy ending with Christian. As he revisits this story through his writing, he is able to understand the inevitability of it and look for ways to grow from this tragic experience.
Even Luhrmann himself showcases the same healing effect of creating art. On the first day of shooting Moulin Rouge!, the filmmaker’s father passed away. After taking some time to heal, he returned to finish the film and push through a difficult shoot, including Kidman fracturing her ribs (twice) and being forced out of the Australian Fox Studios due to production on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. In terms of grief relieved, how much Luhrmann benefited from creating this film will be a mystery. But because he showed how much Christian’s progress gained from confronting his sadness through art, I believe it safe to assume that this film was an important way for him to express his emotions.
Either in a fictional world or reality, art has the incredible ability to allow people to express themselves. Through this expression, art can give someone the freedom they need to process the darker emotions they face. Moulin Rouge! isn’t just a love story but a story of learning to heal and adapt from the situations where it seems impossible.