The Moulin Rouge!: Why Christian Was as Bad as the Duke
Like most of the movies I loved as a naive and starry-eyed teenager, 2001's Moulin Rouge! was a musical romantic comedy with a really bad romance. By "bad" I mean that the romance was the emotionally unhealthy so-called "relationship" so typical of most romantic comedies from the late nineties and early 2000s (see: The Mummy and The Mask of Zorro).
As I mentioned, Moulin Rouge was one of my favorite films as a teenager, mostly because I love musicals. But now that I'm older and wiser, the film is actually really disturbing, and I can't believe I used to think it was romantic.
Even though I now have a fully developed adult's brain, I still don't trust myself completely simply because I actually used to love the "romance" in this film.
For people who actually love Moulin Rouge!, I know that I'm probably coming off a bit harsh. Trust me. I'm as bummed about this film being crap as you are.
I recently decided to watch the film again for the first time in years, and it hit me that pretty much all the leading male characters were scummy and were abusing Satine, the female lead, in some way.
Christian (Ewan McGregor) is a struggling writer who is in love with the idea of falling in love. He is rightfully criticized for it by his father but leaves for Paris to be a writer-who-falls-in-love anyway.
When he meets Satine (Nicole Kidman), he decides almost immediately that he is in love with her. This prompts the Elephant Love Song Medley, which is probably one of the best sequences in the film -- the other being El Tango de Roxanne.
My problem with the scene is that Christian doesn't take "no" for an answer. Satine has her own life and her own goals and is clearly not in love with Christian. Back when he was singing to her, she was "wooed" but still wasn't in love with him. If a strange guy started singing to you at your window at night, you might be flattered (likely annoyed or even terrified he's a stalker) but you aren't going to fall in love.
Satine tells Christian to leave and get the hell out of her room -- which he creepily enters by climbing the wall -- multiple times, but he doesn't. Instead, Christian insists that Satine needs him and his love.
"No means no" needed to be shouted a couple times here. If a woman needs to be persuaded, she's just not into you, bruh.
I think it's because Ewan McGregor is so damn likable and has that sweet, boyish smile that most people -- myself included -- gave him a pass. The one thing about romantic comedies is that the male lead is often played by someone handsome and charming and likable -- so you feel inclined to give that pass.
What Christian ultimately did was stalk Satine (he climbs into her bedroom), then beg her repeatedly to have sex with him, singing until she says yes.
And because Satine is a *lady of the night* (I have to avoid being censored), she is likely so thirsty for love that she'll take what she can get. Christian seems sweet, and even though what he's doing is intrusive and wrong, she probably figures it won't get much better for her.
Sadly, it doesn't.
Makes you feel really, really bad for Satine, who is pulled in six directions throughout the story. If she's not dealing with Christian's raging jealousy, she is dealing with her life-threatening illness. And if she's not dealing with her life-threatening illness, she is dealing with the raging jealousy of the duke.
The only thing Satine really wants is to be an actress, but she is a woman living in a man's world. She doesn't stand a chance. Her destiny is to be a thing that is argued over by anyone with a penis. Zidler literally owns her, while Christian and the duke are fighting not for Satine's love but for ownership of her.
I don't think I need to explain why the duke (Richard Roxburgh) was a jerkass. During one scene, he throws a tantrum and tries to assault Satine. Then later, he threatens to have Christian killed if Satine doesn't submit to him.
You're probably thinking there's no way Christian is in any way as bad as this guy. In reality, Christian was actually just as abusive and manipulative of Satine as the duke, he was just on the opposite end of the spectrum. Meaning, the duke was more blatant about what a jerk he was and completely lacked Christian's boyish charm, which ultimately made him seem more repulsive.
Much like Christian, the duke would never take "no" for an answer. He sees Satine as something he wants to own. Again, like Christian, he is in love with the idea of being in love. He is not in love with Satine herself, as -- like Christian -- he has only known her a few damn days.
At one point, the duke throws Satine to the floor and shouts that she made him believe she loved him -- but what the hell was she supposed to do? Say she didn't love him? He had already decided that he owned her before even meeting her. Rejecting him would have meant a beat down.
So effectively, Satine lied to survive violence that inevitably happened to her anyway. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn't.
Yes, a man's world indeed.
The duke is emotionally unstable, violent, and aggressive. He makes it known that he wants to own Satine, and effectively does so by taking the deed to the Moulin Rouge. Because of him, the survival of the bohemian underworld rests entirely on Satine's submission.
It is a tremendous burden to bear, and while carrying it, Satine seeks comfort in Christian's arms. She probably knows she'll never know real love by sheer virtue of being a *lady of the night,* but at least being with Christian allows her to pretend.
Pretending is her favorite thing, after all. She aspires to be an actress.
Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) is another scummy guy who manipulates Satine. He is a man who pretty much profits off paid rape -- which is all a "sex work" really is. You can't sell consent. You can't sell a person. You can't sell a sex act. Money is basically coercion to make women do something they don't want to do, and coercion is rape.
The way Zidler pets and grooms Satine to be his pretty, obedient property seems benevolent on the surface, but you can't really care about someone who you sell like an object to aggressive and abusive men.
Zidler is unnecessarily cruel to Satine and -- just like any pimp -- he's always got a carrot hanging over her head, forcing her to jump as it suits him. He knows she's dying but decides not to tell her until he can use it to control her -- namely when she is about to run away and be with Christian.
What Zidler did was cruel because the Moulin Rouge was going to shutdown regardless since Satine was dying. We see at the end of the film that the place falls apart with Satine's death. Zidler knew this was going to happen and pushed Satine to do the play so that he could make a few coins off it and use those coins to keep himself afloat after his slave house went under.
Zidler basically squeezed every drop he could out of Satine in order to benefit himself. If he really gave a damn about her, he would have let her run away and spend her last hours happy.
This is what ultimately makes Zidler unsympathetic. From the second we first see him on the screen, he is out to protect his own interests. Satine isn't a person, she is an investment. Her nickname is "the Sparkling Diamond" because she is valuable.
Toward the end of the film, Satine lies to Christian, dumps him, and pushes him away in an attempt to save his life from the duke. Christian takes the rejection badly, returning to the Moulin Rouge to physically assault and humiliate Satine. He yells at her, publicly calls her a wh*re, and roughly throws her to the floor -- just like the duke. He even repeats the duke's line, "You made me believe you loved me!"
But unlike the duke, instead of slapping Satine around in private, Christian is going to do it in public, revealing her to be a "wh*re" and not an actress to the entire district. It's pretty terrible. And yet the audience (my young self included) is so quick to forgive him in the name of "love."
Christian is obsessed with the idea of love but doesn't have a damn clue what it is. If he really saw Satine as a person and not a thing to own, if he really loved Satine and wanted what was best for her, he never would have verbally trashed her and physically harmed her that way.
It's especially heartbreaking because Satine is dying the entire time. She cries and sobs and is barely strong enough to stand. You can't help but feel as if she knows Christian doesn't love her, but she wants to pretend someone gives a damn about her one last time before she dies. So she begs Christian to "forgive" her -- as if she had really done anything wrong!
Honestly, Christian should have been on his knees begging her forgiveness. Calling your lover a slur and throwing her down some stairs is not only appalling, it's inexcusable. (And in most sensible places, it's a crime.)
That all of this was viewed as romantic by the writers blows my mind. Yeah, I thought it was romantic once, but I was f****** sixteen years old. I didn't know any better. This movie was written by a grown-ass man who really thought violence against women and hurling filthy slurs was sigh-worthy material.
So Satine dies in the end, and Christians gets some angtsy material for his novel. Satine basically died to fuel the story of the male lead. In other words, she was fridged.
I like to think of it as "reverse fridged" because she at least got to be in the entire movie. Most of the time, a woman is killed off at the beginning to give the man some semblance of "depth" or some kind of emotional journey.
To be honest, I feel Satine died for nothing. Christian didn't learn what love was. If anything, he acted just like the duke. As in, he was a physically and emotionally abusive, insanely jealous, controlling asshole.
Meanwhile, Satine stretched herself thin trying to please her masters. Because that's how women are socialized, to put the emotional needs of others first. No one in this film gave a damn about Satine. All of them wanted to control her and own her. She was never once a person to them, someone with her own aspirations and desires. Fulfilling her dream of becoming a "real actress" was just a carrot the leading men dangled over her head to make her behave accordingly.
So the "tragedy" of the film is that none of these jerks got to own Satine. The only way out was for her to die. That's the true tragedy here -- not Christian's transformation into a sobbing neckbeard.
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