The greatest thing you will ever learn is to love and be loved in return.
Love is the universal theme of Moulin Rouge, a film about a poet who goes to Paris on a journey of self-discovery and falls for a beautiful courtesan. It is a story that contrasts true and selfless love with lust. The Moulin Rouge is a place of fantasies where men can fulfill their desires at a high price. Its “sparkling diamond” is Satine, whose greatest dream is to become “a real actress.” This includes convincing a wealthy benefactor, the Duke, that she is in love with him. Then, Christian stumbles into her life and in spite of many warnings never, ever to fall in love, Satine gives him her heart, making her ultimately incapable of deceiving the Duke.
The movie has many themes of redemption as well as subtle but profound elements of symbolism. Their names alone are suggestive: Christian and Satine. In ancient mythology, the goddess Satine was a Virgin Huntress. (The Golden Elephant in which her room is situated also has ties to the myth.)
Christian enters Satine’s world and through her love for him, comes to hate her sin and desire freedom from guilt. He is her salvation because without him she would not have experienced selfless love. Redeeming love is a theme that carries through many films. It is tempting to see these ideals as nothing more than nonsense, but it is true that love changes us, something profoundly apparent in Satine. She is paid to please men, to flatter, woo, caress, tease, and deceive. Her worldliness embarrasses Christian on their first meeting but begins to fade as she comes to love him. Satine eventually comes to the realization that she doesn’t “want to pretend anymore.” She no longer wants to be a courtesan.
The colors of the film suggest change and transition through the costuming and backdrops. Satine is always surrounded by red. She wears it, lives in it, and coughs it up. Red is associated with sin and hell. It might even imply that Satine is in hell, a place where she is used only for pleasure without gain, where there is no love, only lust, and where she is the property of the evil Duke. By contrast, Christian is often surrounded by blue, a softer, warmer color. The more they are together, the more she is shown against a blue backdrop until finally, she starts wearing blue—the Gothic Tower gown, a grayish-blue traveling suit, and her sequined outfit in the Theatre performance. Eventually she winds up in white, the color of Innocence, dressed as a bride, implying that her relationship with Christian has purified her.
Obviously, the film is not direct symbolism. Christian is not Christ, merely a reflection of him, and Satine is not a literal representation of mankind, but a figurative one. The Duke is a decent depiction of Lust wanting to use Satine for his purposes. He wanted to own her, possess her, and above all, keep her away from Christian (salvation).
The message about true love contrasted with sensuality is also apparent. There is a difference in the loving, intimate relationship Satine shares with Christian, a man she truly loves, and her behavior toward her “clients.” Secular society would have us believe intimacy is nothing more than a means in which two people satisfy their own desires. Movies and books promote this belief in the form of the instant “love” through falling into bed on the first or second date. But it is not meaningless, or meant to be casually shared. It creates a bond between two people that is not easily broken.
Unlike modern standards, in the Victorian era, sensuality and enjoyment of intimacy was taught as something “vile” and “inappropriate,” leading to repression and encouraging less moralistic men to seek pleasure outside marriage. While some aspects of Victorian society were very moral and upstanding, there were also darker aspects of it in places such as the Moulin Rouge. There is no marriage in the film, but there is a change that comes over both of them in their intimacy, a quietness and happiness (as well as a change to neutral, soft colors) that helps the audience to know that this is the real deal rather than the harsh colors and crude actions of Satine appealing to her “clients.”
Considering the nuances that go into this remarkable film help us not only appreciate its depth with greater clarity, but also grasp its characters. All of us long for a true, deep, sustaining love that will chase away all our fears and make us whole again. It may be a trifle sad, but even through our tears, Moulin Rouge! leaves us feeling as if we have experienced something beautiful.