Moulin Rouge: A Film Rollin’ on Ecstasy (John David West)

One evening, a few years ago, I decided to check out Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 classic, Persona. I put in the DVD, turned off my cell, turned off the lights,  sat back, and watched.  Halfway through the film, an image appeared:  Liv Ullmann, who is looking through the lens of a camera, in close-up, turns to face the camera that is filming the scene; we, the viewer, suddenly became both the camera and the audience at the same time.  I was struck by the power, the beauty and the weight of this action (turning the camera on the audience); I was awed by the cinematic composition on the screen. This brief moment seemed to lift me up and out of the film into a moment of artistic ecstasy. In awe, I responded with a long exhaled “Wow!”  I had experienced a transcendent moment of cinematic poetry, a moment that motivated me to explore the possibilities of similar poetic moments in cinema, those tiny instances that appear to exist separately from each film’s narrative. I began this exercise with the unlikely choice of 2001 musical Moulin Rouge.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn 
is just to love and be loved in return.”

Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge tells the story of a young writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who moves to Paris in search of bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love.  He soon meets a theater group, which includes Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). They are putting together a play to present to the owner of the Moulin Rouge.  He helps them complete the play, which they call “Spectacular! Spectacular!”  They take Christian to the Moulin Rouge where he meets Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan and a dancer.  The story is a basic boy meets girl: he’s privileged, innocent, and in search of a dream; she’s poor, corrupt, but has a heart of gold. Hollywood loves a hooker with a heart of gold. It’s been told countless times, however, through the Lurhman’s slant storytelling the film is visually dazzling, and, indeed, dressed up as a “spectacular spectacular.”

A Thousand words shown in a series of Images for one-minute and seventy-nine seconds

The film begins with the look of a silent film in black and white, high above “1900” Paris.  We see the Eiffel Tower on the far left of the screen and Sacré-Coeur towering on top of Montmartre on the upper right. David Bowie’s “Nature Boy” is heard sung hauntingly in a melancholy tone by the Toulouse Lautrec character as we look out over the Paris skyline.  The camera, accompanied by the sound of gentle rushing air, rapidly zooms forward towards Montmartre and then rushes down to the streets, which are alive with busy pedestrians.  A priest stands on a corner across the street from a large gate in the shape of a Hellmouth. (The Hellmouth was used in medieval theater to dramatize the entrance to hell as the gaping mouth of a monster.)  The gate is topped with a sign that reads Montmartre.  The Hellmouth suggests that we are about to enter the hell of Montmartre, the underworld of Paris.  The camera slows down as the priest warns us not to enter: “. . . turn way from this village of sin,” his words are muted and distant. The camera speeds past the priest and up to the gate as if to deliberately disobey the priest’s warning. (The priest foreshadows the young man’s father who, in a later scene, tries to convince him not to go to Paris.)  Then the camera zooms across the street to three full-figured prostitutes, slowing down as we pass them, focusing on the third prostitute as she stares back at us.  This momentary pause on the prostitute shows us that these are the type of people we are interested in, that we are going to spend the next two hours with this element of society.  

After passing the prostitute, the camera speeds up and zigzags through the dark streets until we come to an young attractive, scruffy, long blond-haired man; he appears to be high. He is perhaps a drug addict or dealer.  Again we, the camera, seem to look at him as we pass.  As he notices us, he leans forward, stares back until his eyes drift up.  Once again, the camera slows down to observe this person of questionable moral character, showing us once more, that this is the type of person the story wants to explore.  Across the street from where he stands is an awning with the words Bar Absinthe.  Aside from the overlapping images indicating that the blond man is most likely intoxicated on absinthe, the bars name foreshadows events that will occur later, as several characters consume absinthe and hallucinate into a fantastical musical number that leads them into the Moulin Rouge.

After passing by the Bar Absinthe, the camera then rises above the street, turning a corner as it moves forward and up to the second story of a building, gliding past a large sign that reads L’Amor, as the camera moves the film rapidly shifts from the distant and monotonous black and white to a color.  The camera’s target is the window of the apartment building; it passes directly through the L’amor sign and in through the window, symbolically entering a love story through the L’amor sign.  Romance, however, is not found on the other side of the sign, but rather suffering.  This visual surprise is yet another image shift in the story.  In a dingy apartment, a young man, Christian, sits on the floor clutching a beer; he is distraught, unshaven and surrounded by empty bottles of booze.  Next, we see a series of quick cross fades: a dusty typewriter; Christian standing frozen before the typewriter, papers strewn across the floor; Christian still sitting in front of the typewriter; and finally Christian inserting a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter.  The next shot cuts to a close-up of the paper as he types the words: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” These are words from the song “Nature Boy.”  Finally, we hear the Christian speak for the first time in voice over: “The Moulin Rouge, a nightclub, a dance hall and a bordello . . .” and thus the introduction ends and the movie begins.      

 The scene just described occurred in the short span of one-minute and seventy-nine seconds.  During this blink in the film’s two-hour and eight minutes running time we move from the wide cityscape of Paris into the space of a few inches on a sheet of paper.  The movement is full of rich imagery, layers, subtext, rhythm, and symbolism.  The end goal in Moulin Rouge is the moment when the suffering poet types the words, “To love.”  Love is the target that is symbolically present throughout the scene, either apparent or submerged: Paris, the ever-romantic city; the large red L’Amor sign hanging outside the young man’s window; the boy’s suffering as a result of having loved and lost.  

 The film’s editing enhances the story by varying the pace, rhythm and juxtaposition of images to create a rich subtext that would have been otherwise mundane and dull. The opening tells the audience that for the next two hours and eight minutes the film is going to intoxicate us with an explosion of energy, vibrant color and music.  “As Lightning to the Children eased / With explanation kind / The Truth must dazzle gradually.”   Luhrman’s direction dazzles as Emily Dickinson’s poem suggests, telling the truth but telling it slant.  The subtext is slant; The camera’s frenzied rapid directional shifts replicate the feeling of being high on ecstasy coupled with the extreme emotions of love, hate, pain and pleasure. The rapid zooming and shifts to slow motion adds visual dynamics and creates a sense of stress and surprise for the audience, “dazzle gradually” but with a psychedelic lightning effect.

Luhrmann states in the liner notes of the Special Edition DVD that “[the] whole stylistic premise has been to decode what the Moulin Rouge was to the audiences of 1899 and express that same thrill and excitement in a way to which contemporary movie-goers can relate.”  Luhrman uses well known pop songs.  He edits the film like a music video. This helps connect contemporary audiences (who might have been alienated by the film’s historic distance) with music that is current thus serving as a bridge between today and Paris in 1900.

The opening of Moulin Rouge is a fine example of a poetic moment because of the rich textural layers.  And as in poetry, these layers are discovered through repeated viewings and rereadings of the film. Each time I watched the scene I discovered something new, much like when rereading a poem and re-encountering a line that moves to a point where you momentarily transcend the poem.  Poetic moments in film evoke a sense of awe, they exist beyond the film and beyond the narrative; they are moments that can live outside of the story and leave the viewer momentarily transformed.  Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren presented a paper titled “Poetry and the Film” at the Cinema 16 Symposium in 1953. Daren discusses poetic elements existing as vertical and dramatic action existing as horizontal.[1]  She makes a further distinction between the narrative as horizontal and the lyric as vertical.  In Moulin Rouge, the horizontal includes the characters Christian, Satine; the story or narrative (series events, what happens to Christian and Satine, etc). The Vertical include the elements described above, rhythm (editing), tone (use of fantastic colors or sorrowful sepia tone), mood (a drunk and distraught writer or upbeat synthesized dance music).  

The poetic moments in film are usually obvious; yet they are sometimes personally specific to the individual viewer.  Much like when a reader of poetry discovers an inspiring line that feels as if it were written for them.  In his book Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Stanley Cavell discusses the personal moments of awe that audience members won’t necessarily experience in the same way since it’s specific to the viewers’ experience at that particular moment in their lives. “The events associated with movies are those of companionship or lack of companionship: the audience of a book is essentially solitary, one soul at a time. . . But this would be giving personal emotional meaning to a moment in film that another viewer might not necessarily have.”[2] These cinematic moments are transcendent, ecstatic moments that you are unable to get out of your head and don’t want to; they exist as poems of light at twenty-four frames per second.  

John David West

[1] I Scott MacDonald 2006. Poetry and Film: Cinema as Publication, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and media no. 24. Quote from “Poetry and Film” symposium.
[2] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, (Viking Press, NY, 1971), 24.

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One thought

  1. The first time I saw this movie in the theater, I was sitting there during the opening scene, on the edge of my seat, wondering if this was going to totally suck or be transcendent. Honestly, for me, when they started weaving “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into the musical collage, I relaxed and sat back and let the whole amazing thing wash over me. I had to go back to see it again quite soon with a date, because the whole experience left me feeling very, er, romantic…..


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