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In Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, the concept of fame is handled in a paradoxical way. Fame leads to wealth and high visibility to the public. Wealth is presented as a negative attribute, yet the poor characters of the Moulin Rouge are still striving to become famous. The movie presents the idea that the wealthy people in France and in society in general are to be scorned, while the starving artist type is to be praised. However, this message is corrupted by the fact that the artists are working to become famous and be wealthy. The best way to understand this argument is to look at each major character individually in relation to the overall story, and to analyze fame as it is in relation to wealth. Although the characters in the Moulin Rouge want to achieve fame, Luhrmann presents fame as a bad thing because it ruins their lives. The warning to the viewers is that the characters should have realized that all they need is “to love and to be loved in return,” rather than fame.
The characters who are wealthy and famous in the public eye are used as a point of reference from which to ascertain the happiness and fiscal positions of the other characters. The most prominent wealthy figure in the story is the Duke. At the Moulin Rouge, the Duke is a highly coveted figure. Everyone wants to know him and the club makes a huge effort both to make it public that the Duke is there, and to make sure he is pleased. Despite the fact that he is portrayed as an advantaged person, and the highest on the chain of socioeconomic status, the Duke is actually supposed to be hated. He nearly rapes Satine, the main female character, and is not able to be loved. Even visually he is represented as someone whom we are not supposed to appreciate, as he sports an unpleasant mustache. The Duke is blind to the fact that the maharaja in the musical is a metaphor for himself, until one of the dancing girls, who is in the know because she is one of the poor artists, explicitly tells him. Privilege in this case is not equal to privilege of knowledge. There are two clear information channels occurring simultaneously at the Moulin Rouge, and the viewers feel lucky to be closer to the underground channel of the artists, because it allows us to be aware of the trickery in the other channel. The Duke does not even get to have a name. This shows how he is a shell of a man, representing the wealthy, suit-wearing, famous in the public eye, folks. The fact that the Duke is presented as the villain in the story shows that Luhrmann does not value wealth and status, but rather goodness of person and ability to love and be loved.
In the very beginning of the movie there is a scene where men in suits sing about how they wanted to be entertained. They say “Here we are now, entertain us. We feel stupid, and contagious.” These men are representations of wealthy people who have money to spend to come to the Moulin Rouge and watch a show. They are all dressed in the same classic black and white suit, and look incredibly monotonous. While the actors who are portraying them are creative and talented, they represent a complete lack of creativity or freedom. On one hand, they are financially free to do as they please and move about the country. They can dress in expensive clothes to show off their riches. These are luxuries that the artists do not get to enjoy. The artists are stuck in the Moulin Rouge if they want to have a network of support and the hope of making a penny. They are forced to cover up in costumes and look like other people in order to earn a living. On the other hand, the wealthy, entertainment hungry men have been deprived of the fulfilling things in life. When they sing “We are stupid, and contagious,” this means that they may be smart in the business world but there is no substance to their character; their intelligence is one-dimensional. They are contagious because they do not think for themselves, but rather work to fit in and look like the others in their socioeconomic group. Additionally, none of them, at least in the representation during the “Can Can-can” number, have a friend or significant other accompanying them. They do not know what it is like to love or be loved, but rather just to be rich. Luhrmann is suggesting that this is not a fulfilling way to live life.
The other major characters are the starving artist type, doing whatever it takes to earn money. They are subject to the chokehold of the cultural fantasy. They believe that fame is the end goal that will move them forward, when in reality it is the limit. This is particularly the case for Satine. Everybody goes to the Moulin Rouge to see her; therefore, she must always remain at the Moulin Rouge. She is doomed to live and die there. Satine’s death exemplifies how fame is primarily a limit. As soon as she completes her biggest star role, her sickness consumes her and she passes away. Her moment in the spotlight was also her final breath. Since their culture prevents the artists from realizing that fame is an objective of destruction, Satine went to great lengths to achieve it. She was herself an object of desire because she was a courtesan. Christian wants her and the Duke wants her, but she only wants fame. She is willing to give up her love of Christian for a superficial and violent relationship with the Duke in order to get his sponsorship and be famous. Therefore, the object of desire of the object of desire is fame. Satine is an extreme characterization of Luhrmann’s clear opinion about fame. Once she has it, she dies. However, she also throws away true love for a shot at some potential greater fame. Her death reveals that love is the most important objective of them all. Had she been satisfied with Christian’s love, and not turned her back, however temporarily, on him in order to be with the Duke and have fame and wealth, she might have lived. Once she got back together with Christian, she also had to die because their love was eternal and killing off her character within the walls of the Moulin Rouge was the best way to show that. As long as Christian and Satine were in the confines of the club, their love would live on forever. Even though Christian does not necessarily go on to become a famous writer, he does write the story of he and Satine, in which the viewer receives the message on a few different levels that it is better to love and be loved in return, than it is to be famous.
Directly opposed to the Duke’s character is Christian. Christian is the protagonist, and his character is more complicated. The character Christian is different from the Christian who is typewriting the story that we are watching unfold. The latter has been through it all, but the former is presently living the story so he does not have the advantage of hindsight. The evolution of Christian reflects the realization that Luhrmann tries to create within the viewer. Christian in the movie wants to become famous. He moves to France to become a famous writer, and then once he becomes involved with Toulouse’s acting group, he wants to become famous because of his musical about the courtesan and maharaja. Through his efforts to build the musical, he gets everything that he wants. However, he gets more than he bargained for. He wins Satine’s love, and the musical unfolds with the contested songs that he wrote, but he also faces major heartbreak when Satine attempts to push him away in order to get the Duke to stay. His true love also dies as soon as they are both able to be together. Christian the typewriter, having gone through all this, writes the story in order to fulfill the dying wish of Satine. She asked him to tell their story, which is ironic because the character Christian already did that in the form of the musical. Writer Christian no longer has a desire for fame. He has had love and come to realize that fame ruined what he had when Satine was living, and that love is what made him truly happy. He is a quintessential example of the emotional and physical costs of fame. He has to go through heartache, scrutiny, and loss of a loved one. Her loss also puts him out of a job besides to tell their story, which is all we see the writer Christian doing. Christian wanted fame when it was in front of him, but he regretted it when it was behind him.
Some of the minor characters also demonstrate how the desire for fame and wealth is real and strong, but ruins lives. Harold Zidler is the best example of this. Zidler owns the Moulin Rouge; he is the ring leader of the circus-like nightclub. He employs Satine to seduce the Duke in order for the Duke to sponsor their musical and the Moulin Rouge in general. He will do whatever it takes, regardless of the costs, to earn a dollar and to be famous. In the beginning of the movie he seems invincible, when he does front flips off of a high building into the entrance of the club during the “Can Can-can” number. In the middle of the movie his character is questionable because he becomes aware that Satine is sick and dying, yet he continues to exploit her in order to make money. It could be argued that Zidler did not tell Satine about her illness in order to allow her to continue doing what makes her happy. However, that cannot be true because if Zidler truly cared about Satine he would have valued her health over her fame and his own wallet. On the surface it seems as though fame will bring nothing but success into Zidler’s life. The viewer is invited in to the underground world where that surface level is merely a dream-like state, and reality is full of deceit, cheating, and secrets. Zidler’s life itself was not ruined because of his pursuit of fame and wealth, but it caused him to be even more stuck than Satine. Both characters are stuck at the Moulin Rouge as long as they are holding on to the cultural delusion of achieving fame. Satine’s way out was a tragic death. Zidler has no way out. Zidler has nothing outside of the Moulin Rouge, and inside he comes to also have nothing. While the ring leader of the Moulin Rouge seems glamorous and invincible, in the end the viewer Is supposed to believe that fame ultimately ruins the great Zidler.
The primary message of the movie is that all one needs is “to love and to be loved in return.” The pursuit of fame is a vehicle that Luhrmann uses in order to categorize which actions and attitudes are valuable, and which are costly. All of the characters of the Moulin Rouge strive to be famous, to be wealthy, and to be recognized. We can see through the analysis of the Duke, Satine, Christian, Zidler, and other supporting characters that fame, while coveted, is more costly than it is advantageous. Luhrmann clearly values people who are in tune with their emotions, who try to become happy rather than wealthy, and who are not afraid to put their hearts, dignities, and inhibitions on the line in pursuit of their dreams. The viewer is left with an understanding that love triumphs over fame and it is better to be a penniless sitar player than a wealthy maharaja.
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