He met Marmalade down in old Moulin Rouge
Struttin’ her stuff on the street
She said, “Hello, hey Joe, you wanna give it a go?”
Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir.
Voulez vous coucher avec moi.
– Lady Marmalade
Ah, the Moulin Rouge. The red mill that sits in the Montmartre region of Paris, and home to bohemian love, lust, alcoholism, music and art of the post-impressionist era. Famed dance hall, home to courtesans and their admirers. And one of the most haunting and haunted spots on the French map.
Imagine such a time: aristocratic wealth contrasted sharply with the almost penniless and completely destitute lower classes. Some rode in satin-lined carriages while others walked shoeless. Some studied philosophy and art while others scraped for change to buy the bare necessities.
Imagine a social order brimming with energy. The wealthy who wanted to slum it to be closer to the real Parisians. The poor working girl who fought for a chance to be seen and make it big.
Imagine opium, and alcohol, and rampant homosexual prostitution and female escorting in abundance.
For in these ideas we find the world of the Moulin Rouge, and the characters that inhabited her infamous walls.
Nowadays when we think of “The Moulin Rouge” our minds most likely immediately go to Baz Luhrmann, Nichole Kidman and Christina Aguilera. And indeed they did produce a tasty little jukebox film highlighting the highs and lows of courtesan life in the dance hall era. This variation of the story is quite salacious, and extremely fun, but it’s only part of the story.
The characters of the Moulin Rouge that we know and love are based off the life of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a post-impressionist painter on par with Van Gough and Gougin. His beginning alone is a tragic tale: born to an aristocratic family where inbreeding was the norm, his parents were cousins, and the subsequent genetic frame in his body left him prone to illness and infection as a boy. A genetic disorder we now associate as osteoporosis caused him to break both hipbones as a boy, fractures which never healed properly. Because of this his legs never grew beyond the age of twelve and he only reached 5’1″, a man’s torso on a child’s legs. It also resulted in extremely large genitals, evidently.
Because he couldn’t participate in the physical activities boys usually spent time on at his age, he started painting. Subsequent years in school would prove him to be an apt pupil, and he excelled in art.
Hoping he’d become one of the greatest painters of his age, his mother secured tutelage with Leon Bonnat, which put him directly in the bohemian Mecca of Montmartre. By 1882 Toulouse-Lautrec was studying with a new tutor who encouraged his students to take Paris as their canvas and explore a wide variety of subjects. It was during this time that Henri met his first escort, an infatuation that would see him throughout the rest of his life.
When the Moulin Rouge opened in 1899 Henri became a frequent visitor. While other artists of the time would shun the idea of painting posters for commercial use, Henri embraced the art and had a regular seat in the cabaret, painting the bright pantaloons and high-kicking stocking-ed legs that we now associate with the era. He was obsessed with the beautiful dancers and escorts, who unabashedly lived the wild, drunken, energized life and took on clients as they chose when the curtain fell. He documented them for the world in his colorful paintings. And it was his presence that would later inspire several movies and the wild, romantic story we now associate with that iconic building.
In Lurhmann’s outrageously dramatic musical, we meet the impoverished writer Christian (played by the sultry Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with Satine, a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge (Nichole Kidman) who is fawned upon by an uppity, awkward Duke (Richard Roxburgh). Christian is trying to sell a dramatic musical to the owner of the dance hall, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) aided by his audacious friend Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo).
Yep, that’s right, our buddy Henri Toulouse-Laurtrec is portrayed by the comedic genius John Leguizamo, in this instance playing a theatrical, singing artist who yells out “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return” in the dramatic nick of time.
There are few sources from which we can guarantee the origin of the tragic story in which a gorgeous courtesan fights for her rightful place as a “real actress” by using the wiles of her beauty, figure and talent to woo the wealthy Duke into funding Christian’s play. And the decision she makes in choosing love over success breaks our hearts. But what is known is quite beautiful; a combination of folklore and what we know of Henri’s time at the Moulin Rouge.
Harold Zidler, the supposed owner of the hall during the time the movie is based, was indeed an historical figure. In reality he was Charles Zidler, the co-owner and creator of the hall. It burned down in 1915 after a 15-year (or so) temporary closing for largely unknown reasons. During that time journals from another courtesan, Lili Deneuve, who squatted in the unused building and entertained friends there along with other former dancers, suggest that both Satine and Zidler were prominent fixtures in the dance hall before it was shuttered.
In her journals, Deneuve recounts her days of living in the empty building, haunted by Satine, “her skin a pale white, her long red hair more brilliant than in life and her blue eyes brighter than ever”. On several occasions other dancers noted seeing the stunning redhead gliding along floorboards in the mezzanine of the theatre, her already regal figure heightened by the fact that she floated a foot above her already lengthy height.
Other associates, unaware of her passing, would claim to see Satine peering at them from windows of the Moulin Rouge, retreating when she was spied from below. It was only when they discovered that she was, indeed, dead that they concluded it was her trapped spirit in the dance hall, unable to ever escape.
Whether Deneuve was repeatedly haunted by the sound of Satine’s voice, unsourced music or the retreating figure of the specter in the empty halls was true or not, something inspired the dancer to leave the Moulin Rouge forever, abandoning her journals to whoever might discover them.
Later, German forces occupying Paris took on the Moulin Rouge as a temporary post. Similar stories were collected implying ghosts of courtesans past. While there are not recorded hauntings, the regiment left for unknown reasons, and the romantics amongst us might attribute the migration to Satine’s presence.
In the film, the story of Satine and the gentlemen that surround her do give us an honest portrayal of the period and the profession of women at the time, whether or not she was a real historical figure. The dancers were not just artists who created the can-can and flaunted their lacy bloomers. They were experienced escorts who chose their clients and enjoyed the company of the elite Parisian clique. Henri was a constant presence, as were writers and other artists of the bohemian era, and the ideals of love and passion were felt wholly amongst this crowd.
Nichole Kidman gives us a completely rounded view of the talented but desperate courtesan in her portrayal of Satine: she recognizes her talents, her beauty and her position of power as a performer, but longs for a profession where her talent is the regaling force. In striving for this position, she will woo whom she needs to. Thinking Christian is the duke who might invest in her talent, she seduces him with any means she can: she’ll play the tempting seductress, the innocent babe lost without him, or the fawning mother figure. Hers is a part to play, and she knows she plays it well. She flaunts that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” but has no need for them other than what they can bring her professionally.
And when Christian opens up to her with his own art, singing “my gift is my song, and this one’s for you, and you can tell everybody that this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it’s done I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words, how wonderful life is now that you’re in the world”, her disguise melts away and she finds herself a woman, simply, in love.
The film continues on with many pop-culture references to both love and prostitution. In a fiery dance number, cast members flamenco out “Roxanne”, the tune belted by the Police, which demands “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light. Those days are over, you don’t have to sell your body to the night. Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right”. The bohemians battle that “love is all you need” while the Duke and Zidler emphasize the power of money in getting what you want.
Satine finds herself trying to lure the real duke into financially supporting the now collective production of the artists, but unable to give herself to him physically though she knows it will mean the success of them all. It’s a heart-wrenching scenario: we naturally despise the lowly duke in not recognizing Satine for more than just her beauty, admire her for not giving into his desires when they don’t match hers, but wholeheartedly want the best for her career.
Unfortunately both the dramatization and the little we know of factual history suggest misfortune: in both accounts Satine dies before her full potential is recognized. But like the bohemian quest for love suggests, she does not die unloved nor in vain.
Our friend Henri similarly found an early death, one that was less dramatic but largely more notorious. In his impassioned, artistic 20 years in Paris, he developed a taste for alcohol along with the company of beautiful women. Whereas other Parisians of the time were sipping on Beaujolais, Henri mixed his absinthe (a potent liquid popular with artists and poets Rimbaud, Verlaine and the like) with cognac. His predisposition to illness and the wild life he lived accelerated his death at the age of 36.
We have to remember that people in general did not live to such old age as we now are comfortable with. And especially during a time when diseases due to rampant sex and gluttony were not so easily fixed with antibiotics and ointments, long life was an uncommon blessing.
What is more notorious was the impassioned beliefs both Satine as a courtesan and Henri as an artist lived by; in a time where wealth was the presiding factor of success, the bohemians lived by their romantic ideals and both loved and suffered every moment to the fullest. Satine, Deneuve and their company were never looked down upon because of the fine lines they walked between dancer and escort, but recognized for the vital part their performances played in bohemian culture and art.
As Satine sings in the gorgeous, haunting film:
I follow the night
Can’t stand the light
When will I begin to live again?
One day I’ll fly away
Leave all this to yesterday
What more could your love do for me?
When will love be through with me?
Why live life from dream to dream
And dread the day when dreaming ends?
One day I’ll fly away
Fly fly away…