- YEAR: 2001
- Director: Baz Luhrmann
- KEY ACTORS: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor
- CERTIFICATE: 12
- IMDB SCORE: 7.6
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 76%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test…but only just! Satine has a conversation with Marie, her dresser, about being a star. That’s it.
✔️ And, oh my gosh, I want to fuck the cast! It’s difficult to argue whether this is either of McGregor or Kidman’s peak hotness because they have just had so many peaks but, damn, they are beautiful in this movie…
✔️ It’s also incredibly rewatchable. If I come across it on TV, I will always watch it, no matter where in the movie we are.
✔️ And Moulin Rouge did inspire fantasies. Not of sex work but of being that beautiful, that glamorous, that sexually confident…
❌ But it is not sex positive! It’s not sex worker positive, it’s not feminist, and it values virginity much too highly!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £2.49, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: whorephobia, misogyny]
Most of the reviews in this blog are for films that I have seen before. I watch a lot of movies and, as I’m a sex nerd, I tend to watch movies about sex and love and relationships. So as I’m rarely reviewing something new, I often do my research before I rewatch the chosen movie. I hadn’t yet found one where this research ruins my love of it, revealing patriarchal undertones that I hadn’t already appreciated, and instead I simply gain a better respect for the film.
Then I researched Moulin Rouge. Wow…
OK so I love this film. I am a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann and I love the glamour and vibrant colour of his style. I love Strictly Ballroom, I love Romeo and Juliet, I even loved Australia! I’ve been to two Secret Cinema showings of Baz Luhrmann movies – Romeo and Juliet in 2018 when I was pregnant and, of course, Moulin Rouge in 2017. That evening is on my short list of best cinema experiences ever. With my love and my sisters, all looking gorgeous, we stepped back in time to 1900. We drank prosecco and gin in smoky bars while watching cancan dancers. We walked the cobbled streets of a recreated Montmartre and sat in the lush and opulent theatre to watch the film, surrounded by dancers who brought the frenetic images on screen alive around us as we sobbed and sang…and then FREAKING BAZ LUHRMANN APPEARED and we got to cheer and thank him for making the movie, and then Groove Armada DJed the after party where we danced and danced and danced and, oh my gosh, it was the best day ever!
But I’ve not seen Moulin Rouge since that showing in 2017. The movie is exactly the same as it always was but I have changed; I have been radicalised! I am now a feminist activist, a smasher of the demon lizard patriarchy and advocate for sex worker rights. And I’m sorry to say that this new perspective really has tainted the glitz and glamour of Moulin Rouge…
Moulin Rouge tells the story of Satine (Kidman), a courtesan at the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, and a bohemian writer, Christian (McGregor), who falls in love with her. He writes her a spectacular play that is financed by the Duke, a man who is expecting Satine as payment. Driven mad by jealousy, Christian leaves Satine – calling her a whore – before they are reunited in a dramatic conclusion. Devastatingly, before they can be together forever, Satine dies and everyone is heartbroken.
Before I start with the negatives, I do want to talk about how beautiful this movie is. It oozes superlatives and adjectives, and I can’t help but still love it for that. It’s sumptuous, it’s opulent, it’s gorgeous and glamorous and luxurious and lush, and it’s wonderful. Roger Ebert described it as having the ‘melodrama of a 19th century opera, the Technicolor brashness of a 1950s Hollywood musical and the quick-cutting frenzy of a music video,’ and it is so exciting to watch.
Kidman and McGregor are also absolutely stunning. I find it very difficult to pick either of their hotness peaks – Practical Magic? Australia? Brassed Off? Shallow Grave? – but this is pretty high on the list! I was so in love with Ewan McGregor when I was 16 in 2001 and I was so envious of Nicole Kidman’s beauty and elegance. I wanted to be her and I wanted her blatant and yet effortless sexuality. And, if I’m honest, I still do!
But what I don’t want, and what I can only appreciate now that I have a better understanding of the grip of the patriarchy, is the level of literal objectification that goes on in Moulin Rouge – Satine is just an object for the men at the club to desire and own.
The objectification of Satine was described in one essay I read as ‘singlehandedly [taking] the fight for feminism back a few decades, the character fitting into almost every aspect that the feminist movement has tried to overcome.’ Laura Mulvey famously coined the term ‘male gaze’ to describe how women only exist in films is to be looked at, and Satine is a classic example of this perspective: ‘she is passive and desirable for the men in the story and the men in the audience.’ Moulin Rouge takes this focus to a whole new level with the camera becoming like ‘a heterosexual man [as] it lingers over the curves of her body.’ And no one can take their eyes off her. She is the Sparkling Diamond! When she first appears, dazzling in diamonds and floating high above us, the audience has to look up at her, taking the perspective of the men hoping to buy her. We don’t really even see her properly – we just see her lips, her outline, pieces of her that ‘make her something rather than someone.’ She is an object to be looked at, seen ‘not so much in dramatic situations as in poses-in postcards for the yearning mind.’ And her character doesn’t really do or want anything else, because the movie isn’t really about her – it’s about the ‘war over the ownership of Satine’ between the capitalist Duke and the Bohemian Christian, who both treat her in exactly the same possessive way despite Christian being positioned as a hero.
In fact, every single male character takes advantage of Satine – Zidler uses her to bring enormous crowds to his club so he can make a lot of money and withholds information about her health and illness until it benefits him to tell her, Christian and Toulouse are hoping to gain fame and fortune from their play about her, and the Duke is using his money and hold over Zidler to gain access to Satine’s body: ‘at no point in the narrative does she have the upper-hand against men, except maybe while performing, as she seems to make both Christian, the Duke, and other male suitors squirm when displaying her “temptress” persona.’
But this temptress persona combined with her looked-at-ness allows Satine to fulfil another patriarchal movie cliche known as the Monroe Syndrome, coined by Angela Carter and named after women such as Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow whose characters combine ‘beauty, seductiveness and high sexual charge, together with an air of vulnerability and innocence.’ These women are beautiful and sexual and desirable, but they cannot be aware of their appeal without becoming damaged and, therefore, undesirable. They can only be innocent. Writing about Monroe as an example, Carter stated that ‘men would rather have slept with her than sleep with her. She is most arousing as a memory.’ Which, of course, is why Satine had to die.
If she had lived, Satine’s reality as a living breathing woman who has had sex and who has experienced life would have got in the way of the romantic notions that Christian and the Duke have for her, because both men do consider her to be a virgin of sorts. They know that she is obviously not physically a virgin but Christian believes that she is essentially a virgin ‘in the sense that she has never been with someone she truly loves before.’ He has taken her heart’s virginity, or something equally as nauseating, and he is saving her from her worst self so that she can become the virtuous woman he deserves. Don’t forget that Satine becomes much more valuable to the Duke after Zilder has convinced him that the thought of being with him makes her feel like a virgin again. They sing a whole hilarious song about it. Awesome.
But this virginity is a myth (as well as a patriarchal construction that reinforces the ‘virgin “Madonna”/whore dichotomy’) and cannot be sustained. Instead, Satine dies and so doesn’t have to dispel any of their mistaken ideas about her. It also means that neither man really loses the ownership war – it is Satine that loses everything: ‘In the end, while the Duke does not “get the girl” as Christian does, he wins in that Satine dies, fulfilling a sort of “if I can’t have her, nobody can” ideal.’ Both men can live on with their own ideas of Satine and what she meant to them, romanticising her memory: ‘Satine, who cannot ultimately be both a courtesan and a virgin, has to die in order to become a masturbatory fantasy for all the male characters: for Christian and the Duke she will fulfill the role of the pure bride, to whom they can both lay claim as their own exclusive property.’ Sigh…
As if this patriarchal ownership shitshow wasn’t enough, Moulin Rouge also perpetuates damaging ideas about sex work.
Everything about the Moulin Rouge is clearly based on capitalism and this is made even more explicit in the music choices that Luhrmann makes during Satine’s entrance when she sings a mash-up of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Material Girls.’ The tone is lighthearted and inspirational, which makes Satine seem kind of awesome and makes owning all of this beautiful expensive stuff seem desirable and aspirational. She’s surrounded by richness and material symbols of success and, as Giusta and Scuriatti state in their essay, The Show Must Go On: Making Money Glamorizing Oppression, ‘the songs and act performed by Satine present prostitution as a profession which may enhance a woman’s social and economic status.’ But as Moulin Rouge progresses, it becomes clearer that that’s not what the film really thinks of sex work.
Because Satine still doesn’t want it. She still dreams of escape. Luhrmann fills the movie with caged bird imagery to emphasise how trapped she is and again uses music to hammer home his point, with Satine singing ‘one day I’ll fly away, leave all this to yesterday.’ She doesn’t want to be a sex worker and it is clearly implied that it is a degrading and undesirable profession when compared to being a real actress, something thought of as respectable and acceptable. This contrast between acceptable and unacceptable, honourable and shameful, is highlighted in the visual contrast between the superficial glamour of the club and the derelict underbelly of the area around the Moulin Rouge. It’s literally referred to as the underworld!
And while there are undoubtedly sex workers who are trapped against their will, this is not a universal experience and it is damaging to paint sex work as such an intrinsically degrading occupation. As sex worker Lily Vye wrote for Bust, ‘unlike Satine, I do not feel trapped or like property, nor do many sex workers I know, and Moulin Rouge’s depiction of sex work as inherently degrading is now hard for me to swallow.’
But what is almost worse than this negative portrayal of sex work is the insistence that being a sex worker makes someone unlovable. Christian and Satine’s relationship breaks down because of his jealousy and his inability to accept that she has sex with other people as he wants her for himself. Don’t misunderstand this as romantic – it’s awful. Not only does he see Satine as his own property that he is not willing to share, he doesn’t believe her when she tells him she loves only him and he doesn’t believe her when she says that she can keep her work separate from her life and her love. Satine loves Christian and has given him her heart and emotion and commitment and whole self; the Duke is only permitted to her service, her body. Not her self. But that is not enough for either of the men who want her.
Don’t forget, sex work is a job. It’s a job! But the way it is portrayed in Moulin Rouge makes it impossible to understand that there is a difference between sex for love and sex for work. And it’s not just Christian who is confused. It’s the whole point of the Roxanne scene! To quote Vye again, ‘as a film buff I find it one of the most extraordinary sequences in film history. But as a sex worker, when the Argentinian says, “Never fall in love with a woman who sells herself. It always ends BAD!,” my heart hurt…Sex workers are not selling their selfhoods. They are selling their service, their time, and and their labour, and the conflation of sexuality and selfhood is a dangerous and common one that creates anti-sex worker biases.’
Because even though Christian claims to love Satine, he hasn’t forgotten that she is a sex worker. He plays a saviour that rocks in like a white knight to save the fallen woman from her fate – even their names have religious undertones with Christian and Satine being ‘clear plays on Christ and Satan’ – but that’s because he genuinely believes that she needs to be saved. And as soon as the shit hits the fan and he is upset with her, he throws her sex work back in her face. He calls her a whore for fuck’s sake. Repeatedly. He literally throws money at her and degrades her in public. It was difficult to watch before I understood how whorephobic his actions are and it is frankly painful now.
In fact, the whorephobia and objectification and entire anti-feminist attitude is so blatant and so awful that it almost feels like it’s on purpose. A Baz Luhrmann fan blog wondered whether he used ‘the extremes of costume, symbolism, male gaze to encourage people into recognising the problem.’ A bit like Verhoeven in Showgirls, maybe all the parts that make Moulin Rouge look awful were intended as a teaching aid.
Except that it doesn’t really work here either! The deeper message of Showgirls was lost because the film was kind of rubbish and difficult to watch; the deeper message of Moulin Rouge is lost because it’s a blast! It’s too much fun and too easy to get carried along with the glitz and the glamour so we barely notice the problematic elements, let alone the satire. Also, I can’t write about Moulin Rouge without commenting on the fact that there is only one person of colour in the movie and they are called Chocolat. Wow. Sadly, from a 2020 perspective, this really isn’t a good movie.
I honestly don’t know if Baz Luhrmann was trying to be too clever with his movie, trying to expose the misogyny of the male gaze. I hope so but, in my heart of hearts, I can’t believe it. The whole movie is too frenetic, too highly charged, and frankly it’s having too much fun! Sadly, I just don’t think Luhrmann thought about his story from a feminist perspective and don’t think he considered what sex workers would think, which does change what I think of Moulin Rouge now. The Guardian review described it ‘as if a jeroboam of champagne has been shaken up far too much and then uncorked in our faces. That isn’t a very refreshing or tasty experience.’ And I can imagine the kind of man who is shaking up that bottle.
He’s exactly the kind of arsehole of a man who was privileged enough to have a jeroboam of champagne and would waste it by spraying it into someone else’s face. For fun. Cool, cool, cool.
And yet, I still love watching Moulin Rouge. I still sang along with every song and still laughed and still cried. Damn, the patriarchy is seductive!
NEXT WEEK: Contact – a guest post from CharlieX!