Friday night a group of us gathered to watch Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. I've seen it several times , I enjoy the film. Luhrmann is currently among my favorite filmmakers. One of the reasons for this is that his films are dense and to my eye both celebrations and deconstructions of our cultural sensibilities, especially as articulated in film.
Moulin Rouge of course is a tour de force, a mash up of film tropes and popular loves songs of the 20th century. This is one of the reasons we gathered to watch the film with an eye to possible intersections between romance and mystical encounter with God. Love and romance have long been pictures of the soul's encounter with God. This understanding is one of the long held interpretations of the Biblical love poem the Song of Songs. We don't often see our love stories as possible resource for images of encounter with God. Or only find them in contexts where the tropes are used but not reflected upon or delved into in any depth..
The Moulin Rouge is both spectacle and a story about spectacle as the play within the film is simply title Spectacular Spectacular. In the midst of spectacle is an impossible love story (tragic?).
In the midst of the spectacle it can be easy to forget that from the start we see the impossibility of the love between Christian and Satine. Yet we are taken in, at various points for different viewers, but still somehow the songs, the love story, and the spectacle caries us, touches us. While the story on the surface is tragic and we know the ending from the beginning the film reflects back to us our cultural delight in "silly little love songs." We don't seem to tire of the love song (in its various forms) or the love story.
Our discussion after the film wandered a good bit and touched on various aspects of the film. On one hand Moulin Rouge is a celebration of the artifice and the manipulation of film. We are wowed and the film makes us aware that we are being wowed. This leaves a question of what are we to take seriously. It also may leave one with a sense that we are simply to swallow hole the tale and the spectacle, the tragedy, and then we aren't left with much, or at least a fairly dreary and fatalistic view of love. Or is it even really about love? From this view point one could say that the film is about desire and competing desire and the male gaze. Do the three men, the Duke, Christian and Ziddler ever concern themselves with Satine's desires. She is the object of desire, Christian and the Duke are both infatuated, Christian's infatuation is presented in much of the film in a more positive light, but even his desire for Satine turns dark with jealousy. So, many stock characters, and for the three men in the film their character arc is pretty small.
This all lead us to wonder about Satine. While the film does have a pretty strong chauvinistic even misogynist bent, is Satine, even though she dies, simply the object of desire? Here is some of the moments of deconstruction in the film. While the male characters are rather static (and one wonders what if anything Christian really knows or has learned about love even at the end of the film), Satine in comparison begins to appear to be the character with the greater arc, she and her motivations are a bit more complex (one sees this a little bit in Ziddler as well). Satine who is deing (though for most of the film she doesn't know it) falls in love with Christian, in a way significantly different than Christians infatuation with Satine. Her actions are complex and bound up with a catch 22 situation but she is motivated in part by concern for Christian. She is also attempting to be true to here various desires and in the end she is the star and gets great applause. Even so what are we to make of her death, the demise of the Ziddler and the Moulin Rouge and at least for the film a very short lived Bohemian Revolution?
The film doesn't settle into any nice interpretive frameworks. It tells us it's about Beauty Truth and Love. It certainly is a beautiful film, but its artifice, if we reflect on it, may give us pause about truth. As for Love, it seems most obviously a story of desire and the male gaze. Yet, if we find this film lacking in its presentation of love, we should then perhaps examine our own culture's obsession with "silly little love songs" and the stories of romance we tell ourselves. What are we to make of this refrain of the film "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return." Who in the film learned this? Christian who believes in love, a love barely distinguished from mere desire and possession? Certainly not the Duke, and Ziddler believes love is too costly for those in his social location. Perhaps Satine? But we don't know, she dies. We can suspect she does, her character arc suggest that she does, yet the film prevents us from knowing, though it allows us to ask the question.
In the end I think we all were left with a longing for something more than Luhrmann's film offered us in terms of love and what we hope for love. However, the Moulin Rouge mostly made use of the tropes of our love stories and love songs, if we find something lacking in Moulin Rouge perhaps this lack is our own. Baz Luhrmann showed us what we already tell ourselves, even celebrates it, accentuated it to it's tragic and ridiculously artificial conclusion. Yet the film still, even if only in moments, touches us, and leaves us wanting something more. I say if we follow that longing for something more then we have begun a journey of desire and love that may bring us beyond romance and eros. If we accept the deconstruction of our stories of love and romance, we have perhaps begun the mystics journey of love and desire. A journey towards God, who is Love.