Seducing the Underworld
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 Hades to permit Eurydice to leave. Hades agrees upon one condition: Orpheus must not look back. Of course, near the end of the journey, Orpheus fears for Eurydice, turns, and she is lost forever.
Moulin Rouge uses many of these elements as protective coloring, but they don't have the power to drive the story to its climax. In the film, a naÏve singing poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor) defies his father by moving to Montmarte, the artists' quarter in Paris, home of the Moulin Rouge. He strives to win the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) and rescue her from this Underworld. Like the music of Orpheus, Christian's songs of love work their magic, and, like Orpheus, he does turn around at the last moment, losing his love. But that is as far as the Orphean tale can reach. Traditional Christian categories have to sneak in for the larger story to work.
Notice the contrasts: instead of a virtuous Eurydice bitten by a snake, Moulin Rouge has a corrupted, used, immoral Satine coughing up blood from her consumptive life in the underworld; the Orphean myth (and the Greek mind) knows nothing of sin. In the tale of Orpheus, Eurydice experiences no conversion, but Satine does. Instead of the music of Orpheus, knowable only by its effects, we have a man of the written word singing specifically about love, a simple but pure and eternal love, a magical message that turns out to be much more powerful than a selfish romanticism can bear. And instead of traipsing along like the passive Eurydice, Satine ends up denying herself, sacrificing romantic attachment to Christian in order to save him from death; the Orphean myth knows nothing of self-sacrifice, only petty death.
Where, then, do these alternate categories come from? Moulin Rouge quotes from many songs and movies, but Camille (1937), with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, is pointed to as the main source beside the myth of Orpheus. In that story, we do indeed get much more, but still not enough. Garbo plays Marguerite, the consumptive courtesan of Montmarte who finally falls for Taylor's Armand. Armand's father pleads with her to abandon her love for his son, which is certain to ruin the family name once it becomes public knowledge. She agrees, then reneges, and dies in Armand's arms. Again, many elements of this show up in Luhrmann's collage.
But just as with the Orphean myth, Camille doesn't provide enough categories to complete the Moulin Rouge story. The love of Camille never rises above narrow, individual interests. It is a painful sentimentalism that suffers and doesn't fight. It is the selfish love of romanticism, individualized and melancholic.
Camille shows itself best in Luhrmann's hands as a reflection of a Dantean purgatory, an "almost" realm. The love in Moulin Rouge can be seen to separate into three distinct levels, with a Dantean feel. The early segment is the Inferno—crass, rebellious, and sweaty. Christian and Satine rise above this level during the middle of the movie and delight in an individualistic romanticism—Purgatory, Camille. But the narrative won't let them stay there; it punishes them and drives them beyond noncommunal, self-focused love. It drives them to a love that lasts "come what may." By this time even many of the nightclub costars have been "bewitched with the words" of love, and they recognize that Satine is a Christ figure, who has "gone to the tower to save us all," redeeming the Underworld for true love.
But what is the magic that drives the protagonists toward such sacrificial love? Effectual calling. Love songs. Silly love songs. Love songs from the Seventies and Eighties. These lyrics provide moments of great humor, but they also contain a power beyond what the singers imagine. The lyrics move from "We should be lovers" and "I Was Made for Loving You" (Kiss) and "Just One Night" (Phil Collins) to "I will love you until the end of time"—a transition, like the couple's love, from narrow horizons to eternal oaths. Audiences simultaneously delight in and squirm at these pop songs; we're embarrassed to admit they move mountains. The lyrics outstrip their contexts; songs of eternal love burst selfish wineskins. And their silliness is no worse than the "silly" passions of the Song of Solomon. Solomon and the Shulamite are utterly lovesick for each other, too. It's a failure of our own sensuality to mutter against passions and "losing ourselves" in love, when Scripture itself embarrasses us with greater sensuality.
In the film, as Christian and Satine move toward the goal of sacrificial/sensual love, they are still both compromised with baggage from the past. Christian can only see naÏve appearances and doesn't recognize Satine's true faithfulness. Satine, though motivated by sacrificial love, is compromised by her Moulin habits and uses deception as the means to save.
Both compromises unravel in the final scene. Satine finally puts away all the appearances, and, dooming the Moulin Rouge to destruction, sings out the song of their first love, the song of eternal love. Instead of Christian calling her, she now calls him to a higher love. And when everything ultimately falls apart, Satine exhorts Christian, the writer, to "Tell our story, Christian." And adds, as the other Christ-type, "I will always be with you."
Beneath all the layers of the film, there is one more source. The filmmakers couldn't escape Christian categories not only because a good narrative demands them, but also because the backbone story stems from Alexandre Dumas's 1848 novel La Dame aux camelias, which inspired not only the film Camille and numerous plays but also Verdi's opera La Traviata. Dumas's tale has a self-consciously Christian protagonist, who describes the story as a meeting of the Prodigal Son and Mary Magdalene. Dumas even has Marguerite (Satine) openly redeemed at her death: "She lived a sinner, and she will die a Christian."
This is how the categories of sin, sacrifice, effectual calling, regeneration, redemption, truth, beauty, goodness, and taking captivity captive permeate Moulin Rouge. It's as if the filmmakers thought they were grabbing just a bit of brass here and a rope there, only to find that they had carried in an entire ocean liner of Christian categories. You can't speak long of love without Dante sneaking up behind you.
These background categories drive the film and make it a wonderful image of Christian cultural transformation. Instead of winning the Underworld by the tyranny of the ballot box or threats of searing tribulation, a Christian culture can seduce darkness to light by sonnet, tango, and fugue. Tell that story, Christian.
Douglas Jones is a fellow of philosophy at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and senior editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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