Re-Watch: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Moulin Rouge!
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writer: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, Jacek Koman, Matthew Whittet, Kerry Walker, David Wenham, Kylie Minogue
Seen on: 22.12.2019

Young, promising artist Christian (Ewan McGregor) finds his way to Paris where he hopes to be part of the bohemian revolution. He is quickly adopted by a theater group who hope he can help persuade the Moulin Rouge to put on their play by convincing its most important star Satine (Nicole Kidman) of his talents. Satine is quickly convinced, but the Moulin needs the help of the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to finance the play – and the Duke wants Satine. That Christian and Satine fall in love, then, is the most inconvenient thing.

Moulin Rouge! came out when I was a teenager and it hit me in just the right way in pretty much everything. I still listen to the soundtrack regularly, but it had been years that I have actually seen the film. Now that I have, what can I say but that it’s still one of my faves despite the many (many) problems I can see.

The film poster showing a woman and a man kissing in front of the Moulin Rouge windmill.

Moulin Rouge! is a visionary project – from costumes to choreographies to the way it ties in surreal images, it’s a visual feast. And the soundtrack, combining and using pop songs to tell its story, is fun and a testament to the art of arrangement. Plus, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor have fantastic chemistry, so heart eyes to all of that.

But looking at it now, almost 20 years after it came out – 20 years I spent learning about the world in general and media in particular – some of its flaws stood out to me much more than they did before. And there are definitely flaws, plural. It starts with the general story that kills off the beautiful woman, so that the main dude can be inspired to write his great piece of art about their tragic love story. It’s her dying wish that he write about them (not her, the both of them), but I’m pretty sure Satine, too, would have appreciated, you know, living.

Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in the film.

But that’s not the only thing. The movie is incredibly anti-sex work(er), especially for a film that takes place in a brothel. Satine dreams of becoming a “real actress” because being a sex worker (albeit one where she gets to perform shows every night) is the worst. And the only other sex worker who gets a bit more attention, Satie (Matthew Whittet), is a scheming bitch. (Given that she’s also played by a male actor, you can add some transmisia there as well.) Plus, the entire jealousy angle and “nobody may touch you” that is very much stressed speaks volumes about the (male) need to possess their (female) partners, but the film always sees it as natural and even romantic.

In addition, there are some incredibly bad casting choices like casting John Leguizamo (who is generally delightful!) to play a dwarf and casting one black actor (Keith Robinson) in the entire film and having him play a servant who doesn’t get to say anything. Add to that the played for laugh narcolepsy, and you do get a hot mess.

But that hot mess still has my heart, despite all (although it would have had even more if it hadn’t had those issues). And I didn’t just notice problems I didn’t see before, but this time I also had a new appreciation for Richard Roxburgh and his incredibly funny performance. I never noticed how great he is. So for me, although a few things about it do pain me, it was still worth seeing it again: I got still caught up in the film’s abundant charm.

Ewan McGregor in the film.

Summarizing: problematic fave.

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