Sunday, April 19, 2015

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

I recently watched Moulin Rouge! for my Theology and Film class, and I quite liked it. I would consider this to be one of my ten very favorite movies. It is exceptionally well acted, and its highly stylized visuals are accomplished and powerful. It takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century. The story is simple enough, and for that reason it is universally relevant: a poor writer named Christian has left home in England to lead a Bohemian lifestyle in a morally questionable quarter of Paris. There he is chosen to be the writer of a play to be performed at the Moulin Rouge, a local cabaret which is in danger of closing down. He falls in love with the most famous courtesan and dancer there, Satine (played by the beautiful Nicole Kidman). They fall in love after some resistance on the part of Satine, but the Duke funding the play (and in this way preserving the future of the Moulin Rouge) is also interested in the lady Satine. They must keep their love a secret, while the Duke's advances are becoming more and more difficult to avoid. He demands a night with Satine, but Satine knows that jealousy will destroy Christian if she goes through with it.

It is a musical, and all the music in the film is pop music on the theme of love from roughly the last sixty years. The music is anachronistic, which bothered some of the persons in my class. I think the idea here is to show that the sentiments expressed in these songs are universal and transcendental: they fit in as much in this play taking place in 1899 in a poor Parisian neighborhood, sung by paupers and prostitutes, as in our own day and age. The experience of love is a fundamentally human one, which may be expressed just as well in contemporary parlance as in ancient languages. My favorite lines from any of the songs are these: I hope you don't mind that I put down in words how wonderful life is now you're in the world.

That is what it is like to be in love! The world is wonderful, now that the other person is present. But do the characters love each other? Some persons in my class were less than convinced. They thought that the sentiments between Christian and Satine were properly characterized as lust, not love, because there was no sacrifice involved, no giving up of personal ego, etc. Is this quite right?

I don't think so. I think Christian and Satine love one another. IN the first place, they do sacrifice for one another. Satine, knowing that the Duke will have Christian killed if they remain together, is willing to sacrifice in the following way: she tries to convince Christian, painful as it may be and contrary to the truth, that she doesn't love him; in this way, he will leave heartbroken and his life will be spared. Beyond this, there is also the point that the story had not yet developed to the point in which certain significant sacrifices can be made. Their love is still young, nascent, in the early stages.

Now what sort of a thing is love? The characters in Moulin Rouge! are self-described Bohemians. Their live is a sensual one, lived in the freedom and pursuit of the passions. For them, love is evidently not a rational or cerebral thing, but an irrational one. Why would the courtesan in their play "Spectacular Spectacular" prefer the company of the poor sitar player, rather than that of the maharajah? Why would Satine prefer the penniless Christian, rather than the rich and powerful Duke? Christian says at one point during the movie: Because she doesn't love you! Love is not a rational, predictable, intelligible thing; it simply appears between people, and when it does, it guides everything for them.

More over, love is the very most important thing in the world. Christian says that love is like oxygen, and that it is the thing he cares about the most. It is the subject of his poetry, the subject of his writing, and the subject of his play. Love is what makes life worth living; love is what changes a person like Satine, who despaired of life and who was always otherwise filmed in a cold blue light, and brings her to life, bathing her in warm red colors.


Interestingly, one might complain that love in Moulin Rouge! is not connected to family life and reproduction. There is never any hint that Christian and Satine might some day get married and begin a family; indeed, this would seem radically out of character for Bohemians who reject the Christianity and traditions of past generations. But those things are not so easily rejected as that. Suppose Christian and Satine live together for some time, and the flames which they feel during the movie die down as they realize the other person is not perfect. What then? Do they make commitments to one another, or do they split when things get tough? If they have children, their break-up will prove quite harmful; if they don't, it will nevertheless be difficult simply to leave the person who played so significant and important a role in their lives and development as persons. Love is too heavy and profound a thing -- as all the songs and the tenor of the entire film demonstrate -- simply to leave behind when adversity strikes. Christian tradition and its emphasis upon marriage is to my mind reasonable and conducive to flourishing: both parties are called to make efforts to love even when the same sentiments are not there, even when things are very difficult, even when one feels the impulse to leave.This means that love is action beyond sentiment.

Not that the film would disagree with this! It is out of love that Satine tries to convince Christian that she doesn't love him. This is painful to her, painful to him, and contrary to the truth. Yet, despite the fact that she doesn't want to do this, nevertheless she goes through with it for Christian's good, even if it harms him and even if it troubles her. To my mind, then, the Bohemians in our film, in spite of their worldly philosophy, nevertheless find that the true experience of love moves them to live in precisely the way the Christian tradition they reject dictates.