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Douglas Jones


Seducing the Underworld

Christian's story in Moulin Rouge

When Baz Luhrmann's new film musical, Moulin Rouge, opened last year, Twentieth Century-Fox tried ever so hard to pitch it as a feast of skanky perversity, but the film itself is about the triumph of purity, a wild purity that seduces the stiffest of hearts. Indeed it begins by explicitly telling us that it is about love. That may sound safely generic, but in fact the entire story is engaged in distinguishing among different types and levels and transformations of love—vulgar, selfish, kind, and that love which proves so magical it extinguishes the lurid lights of the Moulin.

The historic Moulin Rouge music hall, immortalized in the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, opened its doors in 1889 as an exotic, multistage dance hall and democratic sex market. (The name means "red mill"; the cabaret's trademark was a windmill painted red.) Royalty, industrialists, ambassadors, and politicians joined lusts with prostitutes, courtesans, Bohemians, and politicians. It was the supreme Parisian eros factory.

In the movie, the Moulin is defined above all by the selling of illusions. Nothing is as it appears on the surface—hence the play with mirrors and tricks of perspective, as if the movie itself were inviting us, almost taunting us, to read beyond its surface claims. The film's symbols won't stay tethered. Its opening, fractured imagery pretends to be postmodern, but the story instead pushes for the most ancient of metaphysical transcendentals—truth, beauty, freedom, and love. The filmmakers explicitly insist that this movie is a retelling of the Orphean myth: "It's Greek. It's about a boy. It's a story about love." Don't buy it.

The Orphean myth is pretty lame and unmotivated by itself. The Greek mind lacks the moral and metaphysical categories to complete a truly good story. In the myth, Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, has the power to enchant every living creature with his music. When his love, Eurydice, is killed and descends to the Underworld, Orpheus goes after her and enchants ...

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