Theatre in Film: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

April 14, 2017

Welcome to Part VIII of Theatre in Film, our weekly feature on a film that depicts a life in the theatre. In Part VIII, we feature films where characters in the theatre must overcome a struggle in their personal lives while also managing the world of performance. This week, we feature the smash hit from 2001, Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham

What happens:

A young writer named Christian (Ewan McGregor) who is suffering from depression moves to Paris to take part in the artistic culture of the Montmarte district. While attending a show at the Moulin Rouge with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) and meets the enchanting Satine (Nicole Kidman). He is instantly attracted to her, and the owner of the Moulin Rouge, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) arranges for Christian to see her after the show. Satine and Christian begin an intense love affair which is complicated by the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh), the man whom Satine is promised to. In addition to the complicated love affair between Christian and Satine, Christian and Henri’s theatre troupe is creating an extravagant show called Spectacular Spectacular to be performed at the Moulin Rouge — a story about an evil maharajah who woos a beautiful courtesan in love with a poor sitar player.

When the Duke becomes suspicious of Christian and Satine’s frequent “rehearsals”, he demands that Satine stay away from Christian or the Duke will stop financing the show. In addition, a jealous chorus girl points out to the Duke that the evil maharaja is a metaphor for the Duke. The Duke tells Zidler that he will have Christian killed if Satine is not promised to the Duke. On the night of the show, Christian accidentally walks onstage with Satine during an argument and they are illuminated by the spotlight, and when Christian is almost killed by a guard, Zidler steps in and saves him. Satine succumbs to her long-suffered tuberculosis and dies onstage, telling Christian to write their story.

Why it matters:

Among all of Baz Luhrmann’s films, this one is an absolute favorite among theatre people. Its extravagant scenery, costumes, and energetic songs make it a memorable film, especially for those who have experienced that kind of extravagance on the stage.

However, Ewan McGregor’s character, Christian, draws on the universal experience of playwrights creating shows that contain stories they are emotionally attached to. Writing, like acting, is a very personal art. In some plays, if not in every play, playwrights will utilize their own experience to inform the plot and characters of their scripts. Just like actors may use emotional recall to inform the way they play a character, writers use personal history to craft plots, characters, and settings because of multiple reasons. It may be that the playwright is fond of a particular place they find familiar, or that they’re having a difficult time processing an event that is either close to them or globally significant, or that they’re trying to figure out the answer to a question through a story.

Though Christian’s idea is improvised with the help of Henri’s theatre troupe, it’s a solid plot and it never changes, suggesting that Christian accepts, enjoys, and lives vicariously through the script he subsequently writes — a script he finds himself emotionally attached to.

This film is the fifth film in Part VIII. See below for the other films in Part VIII.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).
Start reading Part VI with Camp (2003).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Moulin Rouge! Copyright 20th Century Fox, 2001.