Peering Through the Curtains of Intersectionality Into Baz Luhrmann’s Film, Moulin Rouge: A Complex Tapestry

Peering Through the Curtains of Intersectionality Into Baz Luhrmann’s Film, Moulin Rouge: A Complex Tapestry

Photo by Karina lago on Unsplash

The Moulin Rouge (est. 1889) is a place of magic, where one can be met with various identities and backstories. This significant piece of French history was transformed into an artistic rendition of a musical romantic drama film in 2001, with Australian Director Baz Luhrmann running the show. The cinematic masterpiece of Moulin Rouge can be summed up as a romantic tragedy told through the eyes of a poor Bohemian poet (Christian) in late 19th-century Paris. Christian has just moved to Paris in hopes of following the Bohemian Revolution, which is currently taking hold of the city’s drug and prostitute-infested underworld. Christian meets a group of bohemians who have literally fallen through the roof of his apartment and are trying to write a play. This meeting created a snowball effect on the rest of the story, with Satine and Christian meeting and falling in love, except Satine is owned by the Duke of Worcester, making her and Christian’s love forbidden. With this dramatic plot, it is not the only Baz Luhrmann film. If you enjoy one of Luhrmann’s films, you’d probably enjoy the rest of his fascinating filmography.

Baz Luhrmann is an Australian film director, producer, writer, and actor who studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney Australia, where he wrote his short play, Strictly Ballroom, which soon after became Luhrmann’s directorial debut in 1992. Four years later, Luhrmann directed a modern interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Moulin Rouge came out in 2001, completing the Red Curtain Trilogy. It starred Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, and is now a touring musical, with updated jukebox hits. In 2008, Luhrmann’s film Australia starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman was released. Both actors are also starring in Luhrmann’s new Hulu series “Faraway Downs” which comes out in November 2023 and is said to be an “expansion” of the original film. Luhrmann’s fifth film, The Great Gatsby (2013), is a film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. Luhrmann’s latest directorial piece was the 2022 film, Elvis, a movie about Elvis Presley’s relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks. Baz Luhrmann focuses on themes of gender, colonialism, race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality in his films, creating a complex tapestry of intersectionality throughout his cinematic filmography. This paper will only dive into the complex tapestry of intersectionality within the film Moulin Rouge. Still, I encourage my readers to continue analyzing intersectionality in all films, and in all media.

Setting the stage for intersectionality in the film, let’s go back in history to uncover the cultural significance of the era. Often referred to as the “Belle Époque,” which translates to “Beautiful Era,” 19th century Paris was full of optimism, cultural vibrancy, and technological advancements. “Belle Époque” was a time of artistic innovation, especially in art, music, and literature. This era followed a period of economic crisis in the early 1870s, which made this Renaissance-like era all the more beautiful.

The Moulin Rouge originally opened its curtains in 1889 as a cabaret in Montmartre, Paris. This venue is best known as the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance, a dance that was commonly performed by Jane Avril, the inspiration behind Satine (a main character in the film, Moulin Rouge). The can-can was danced by courtesans (dancers and prostitutes) who performed for upper-class, powerful clients. Above the courtesans who worked at the Moulin Rouge, the owners were Charles Zidler (the inspiration behind the character Harold “Harry” Zidler in the film) and Joseph Oller. The original venue was destroyed by a fire in 1915, only 26 years after it opened, leaving only the facade and part of the stage standing (“Grandes Périodes,” 2023). Henry-Jacques, a French historian and author, described the concept of gender in the Moulin Rouge, writing that the “male element is intertwined with the female element, whores, half-girls, bourgeois women, lesbians, and businesswomen. Everything mixes, melts and merges in the slow whirlwind which, from the track, reaches the edges and the promenades” (Henry-Jacques via “Grandes Périodes”, 1925). Describing women in a dehumanizing way shows the oppression that women faced, specifically Bohemian women who worked as courtesans at the Moulin Rouge. 

Female empowerment and sexuality are major themes depicted within the gender category of intersectionality in Moulin Rouge. The courtesans of the Moulin Rouge are labeled as the “diamond dogs,” ‘ungendering’ their identities as women who have free will. Ungendering is a term coined by Spillers (1987) in her piece, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Ungendering can be described as removing gender and dehumanizing people, especially women, objectifying them as passive objects that don’t deserve respect. As for the meaning behind the label “diamond dogs,” there are many different definitions and descriptions online, but in the context of this film, two descriptions emerged as contextually relevant. The first description is their ability to sniff out diamonds, similar to drug dogs sniffing out drugs. These women are portrayed as dogs and animals that only have one passion, a passion for diamonds, which completely objectifies them. The second description breaks down the two words into chunks. The first word, “diamond,” references the phrase that ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend,’ while the second word, “dog,” references the phrase that a ‘dog is a man’s best friend.’ The diamond dogs being best friends to both girls and men shows their compatibility with everyone, making them stereotypically likable and objectifying them.

As for female empowerment in costume design, the use of color is important to address within the film. The men in the film are always presented in black and white clothing, showing not only their socioeconomic status but also their bland personalities, following the statue-like stereotypes of men during that period (Baz and Mary, 2015). The women in the film are dressed in frilly colorful outfits, inspired by the prostitute fashion of the late 19th century. The symbolism behind the use of color further emphasizes female sexuality, in creating this sort of erotic creature of men’s dreams. 

Female Sexuality is composed through the mirror stage, a real stage created for the original Moulin Rouge venue. According to the author of Baz and Mary, the mirror stage contributed to “the added symbolism of mirrors and veils… an age-old representation of objectification and realization” (Baz and Mary, 2015). While this point is fine, I disagree with it because the mirror can be seen as an object of empowerment for women. Think of women who attend pole dancing classes for empowerment and confidence in their sexuality, they are performing for a mirror, rather than a male audience, enhancing their dependence as subjects. So, why is the mirror stage any different at the Moulin Rouge? The answer is that it’s not any different. 

The duality of Satine is another major theme depicted within the gender category of intersectionality in the film Moulin Rouge. Throughout the film, Satine is slowly dying of consumption and yet she continues to perform, coughing up blood into her handkerchief between sets. This duality of health versus illness is one of many dualities Satine consists of throughout the film. 

Another duality is the duality of perspectives of Satine’s life from an outsider’s point of view. The ‘Male Gaze’ is a concept developed by Laura Mulvey, and is shown throughout the film, with close-up images of women’s body parts (such as their thighs), rather than focusing on themselves as a whole (Baz and Mary, 2015). The anonymous author of Baz and Mary wrote that the “camera basically becomes a heterosexual man, it lingers over the curves of her body, every time she is on screen she is objectified” (Baz and Mary, 2015). The heterosexual man’s perspective in this film is Christian, as the story of Satine and his relationship is told through the eyes of Christian, the poor Bohemian poet. 

The last duality is that of women as passive objects, compared to men as the subject, a concept that Simone de Beauvoir and Hemmings have discussed in their writings. Beauvoir wrote, “For him, she is sex—absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other” (Baz and Mary, 2015). Satine willingly changes herself and her identity to fit into the role men want, whether it is a damsel in distress, the bright and bubbly innocent child, or the confident temptress. Men have these expectations that women need to be a virgin and a whore at the same time, to be experienced but also to have never touched another man, which is an impossible expectation to place among women (Giusta, 38). One way to describe the duality of Satine’s identities is to explain the Monroe Syndrome, which is when women perform and impersonate women whose characteristics involve a “combination of beauty, seductiveness, and high sexual charge, together with an air of vulnerability and innocence” (such as that of Marilyn Monroe) (Baz and Mary, 2015). Satine takes on the Monroe Syndrome to fit the expectations of every man, conforming to his needs as a passive object. 

Connecting the theme of race into this complex tapestry of intersectionality in Moulin Rouge is Le Chocolat, the only person of color with a line in the film. While one may immediately think that naming the only Black person of significance Le Chocolat is racist, his character was actually based on a real man who performed at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, named Le Chocolat. The one line that Le Chocolat gets to say in this film is, “I understand,” in response to Christian when he asks Le Chocolat to help Satine back to her dressing room to pack her things. In other words, Le Chocolat is only seen when servicing Satine, or when he saves her life, twice. The first time he saves her life is when she falls off of the swing during her “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” performance, and the second time is when the duke attacks her later in the film. All in all, Le Chocolat’s only agency in the film is in the service of the white woman, tending to Satine in all her problems. 

Alongside the racist stereotype behind Le Chocolat, there are many cases of cultural appropriation and orientalism within the film, Moulin Rouge. One case is “The Argentinian.” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s sidekick is an Argentinian man but he is only referred to as “The Argentinian” throughout the entire film, taking away his power to name, similar to what Spillers wrote about in her piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Another case is Satine’s dressing room, otherwise known as the Elephant Room (as it is located inside a giant elephant sculpture). This room was inspired by the one at the actual Moulin Rouge with the inside of this room being a replica of the inside of the Taj Mahal, containing warm-toned colors, tons of carpets and curtains, and Taj Mahal-inspired lamps and other lighting. The last case is with the show “Spectacular Spectacular,” which is a re-telling of Satine and Christian’s tragic romance, but in a Bollywood style. Satine, a white woman, sings and dances to a Bollywood song in “Spectacular Spectacular,” white-washing the historical and cultural significance of Bollywood to Indian history. Alongside white-washing Bollywood, Le Chocolat is dressed up as the Hindu god Krishna in this scene, further culturally appropriating the Hindu religion.

Power dynamics are one major theme depicted within the class category of intersectionality in Moulin Rouge. In the most pivotal power dynamic that’s seen in this film, the Duke of Worcester threatens to shut down the Moulin Rouge unless he were to receive sole ownership of Satine. Sharing Satine with Christian is something unimaginable to the Duke, as he is powerful and doesn’t need to share anything else in his life. This would also emasculate the Duke and ‘hurt his fragile masculinity’ because if Satine has more than one partner, it gives off the idea that the Duke’s manhood is not enough for Satine. Also, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is creating a musical called “Spectacular Spectacular” throughout the entirety of the film but doesn’t have the funds. Hence, he and Christian need Satine to help fund this musical, by pleasing the Duke to the point where he will fund the musical for them. Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, convinces the Duke to finance a show starring Satine to keep Satine happy while also keeping the Duke pleased in his ownership of Satine. Satine’s situation in this ownership/musical dilemma can be referred to as the birdcage analogy. The birdcage analogy references the concept of ‘the bird in a gilded cage,’ which is a classical symbol used to represent a beautiful woman trapped in a role that she can’t escape (Baz and Mary, 2015). Satine is trapped in this involuntary relationship with the Duke and she knows that the only way to escape is through her inevitable death. 

The economic realities of the era also play a major role within the class category of intersectionality in Moulin Rouge. The economy of Paris suffered an economic crisis in the early 1870s, followed by an elongated recovery, leading to a period of rapid growth beginning in 1895 until World War I. This economic crisis is probably another reason why Harold Zidler was scared to lose the Moulin Rouge. He had worked so hard after the recession to build the Moulin Rouge to its glory days so he didn’t want to lose all of his hard work and dedication. Another economic reality relates to the fashion of the time reaffirming the position of women in society (Giusta, 41). Philosopher, Thorstein Veblen, wrote on this topic and the topic of conspicuous consumption, explaining that some people wear more expensive clothing because they have the money to spend on it (Giusta, 39). In his piece “The Theory of the Leisure Class” in Reflections on Commercial Life, Veblen wrote, “We’ve been taught to find things pleasing” (Veblen, 327). The diamond dogs depict this through their love of diamonds, not only as stage props but as a form of payment that can then be worn in fashion.

The last form of intersectionality that I want to discuss is sexuality and LGBTQIA+ identities in Moulin Rouge. The first character that comes to mind under this topic is the owner, Harold Zidler. While nobody is introduced as queer in the film, there have been years of speculation that Harold Zidler is, in fact, gay, which was later confirmed when Moulin Rouge was turned into a musical. Harold Zidler never showed explicit interest in any gender identity in the film, depicting that he may be queer to some degree whether he is bisexual, asexual, pansexual, etc. But with that being said, this is late 19th-century Paris so what was socially normalized and acceptable is much different than what we see today.

One other character that is depicted as queer is Le Chocolat, alongside the other male courtesans at the Moulin Rouge. Even in today’s views, men who dress in pink and frills are perceived as gay, whether it is Harry Styles or Freddie Mercury. Le Chocolat and the other male courtesans are perceived as gay, through stereotypes of how they walk, dress, and interact with the female courtesans and male clients throughout the film. Highlighting queer identities in the film was clearly not Luhrmann’s main concern, however, that does not mean that there was no representation. Representation could be seen in many of the courtesans’ dance numbers, as gay men were seen seducing the rich men who visited for the evening.

To recap our key findings, we looked into the historical context of the film through Paris in the late 19th century, alongside the birth of the Moulin Rouge and the modern form of the can-can dance in 1889. Next, we dove into Gender Intersectionality with female empowerment and sexuality through the use of the mirror stage and naming, and the duality of Satine, as a passive object for some, but a temptress for others, catering to the wants and needs of men. After gender, we discussed race and orientalism with the character Le Chocolat and several examples of cultural appropriation within the film. After race, we looked at socioeconomic class and power dynamics with the Duke and ownership of Satine, comparing it to being locked up in a birdcage. Lastly, we looked into LGBTQIA+ representation within the film, and while representation wasn’t prioritized, there was still some analysis to be made.

With all of these subsections of intersectionality apparent within the film, these types of power and oppression create a complex tapestry of stereotypes and concepts, piecing together an intricate narrative. In a negative review of the film, New York Times Writer Elvis Mitchell described the film as a “busy tapestry,” but while it was a busy film, Lurhmann packed so much history and intersectionality into an hour and a half (Mitchell, 2001). Similarly, Gloria Anzaldúa writes about the metaphor of intersectionality being a tapestry, writing that “The mestizo and the queer exist at this time and point on the evolutionary continuum for a purpose. We are a blending that proves that all blood is intricately woven together, and that we are spawned out of similar souls” (Anzaldúa, 90). The concept of blood and identities being woven together to make for the tapestry of intersectionality within a person is a significant metaphor, as it captures the essence of having multiple identities within one person. While Anzaldúa describes this tapestry within a person, it also works when connecting intersectionality in film.

To wrap up, I will leave you with the question: Do you think that this is a feminist or anti-feminist film? Remember that the term feminism doesn’t mean anti-man, but rather anti-sexism. Concepts such as the male gaze, sexism, and stereotypes of prostitution and women and key components within the film, yet aren’t done unintentionally. Baz Luhrmann is an artist who does everything intentionally, so whether the film is feminist or not depends on the intentions behind his directorial decisions. I believe that Luhrmann creates this over-exaggerated world that objectifies women because he is drawing attention to the problem of sexism, educating people on sexism through history (particularly in late 19th-century Paris) and even today, raising consciousness, similar to what bell hooks writes about in her piece Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. hooks discusses consciousness raising in the context of feminism and bringing awareness to sexism. In this case, I believe that Baz Luhrmann is bringing awareness to sexism in late 19th-century Paris, specifically through the lens of the Moulin Rouge, a world-famous cabaret where the film Moulin Rouge is set. Overall, I believe that Moulin Rouge is a feminist film because it brings awareness to many feminist issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.