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Moulin Rouge and the Conventions of the Musical

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Moulin Rouge and the Conventions of the Musical

                                        Joseph Szostak.  B00720012

When I first saw Moulin Rouge, I thought it was completely unique and unconventional. So I was surprised to discover, upon analysis, how closely the film adheres to the conventions of the musical. The musical is a genre that provides a story structure and style for song and dance.  In turn, song and dance allow the protagonists to instantly express deeply held feelings, turning them all into poets and quite often, into lovers.


The main action of Moulin Rouge takes place in the famous Paris cabaret and dancehall of the same name, where, we are told, the rich and powerful come to mingle with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld, and where song and dance is the currency of the night.  This setting allows director Baz Luhrmann to plunge headlong into the conventions of the musical[1]:

  • Since it is a theatre, the performers have numerous opportunities to perform and rehearse.  Since this is a dancehall, the patrons also get into the act, dancing in wild abandon.

  • The women of the Moulin Rouge are dressed in lavish costumes of bright primary colours. Low angle shots reveal their luxurious petticoats. The patrons are mostly men in black tux and top hats. The top hat, since at least the films of Fred Astaire, has been an iconic prop in the musical. Satine, the sparkling diamond of the Moulin Rouge, also makes her entrance in a top hat.  The make-up of the Moulin Rouge dancers is taken to lavish extremes.
  • Swooping crane and aerial shots, another convention of the musical, show off the geometry and coordination of the ensemble.  
  • High-key lighting is used to illuminate the cheerful, colourful—and in this case—gaudy costumes and sets.
  • The big misunderstandings characteristic of romantic comedies bring Christian and Satine together when she mistakes him for the Duke, the cabaret’s potential patron.
  • Christian and Satine’s courtship is enacted through song and dance, as the couple serenade one another both on and off stage.  The songs advance the plot.

Moulin Rouge also fits into the backstage musical sub-genre, with much of the action taking place behind the scenes of the cabaret, in rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms and living quarters. This is taken even further when Christian is commissioned to write, Fantastic Fantastic, a musical to be performed on the theatre’s stage, setting up the play-with-in-the-play structure.  Much of the film’s comedy derives from the lover’s use of the situation dupe the Duke and carry on their love affair under his nose.



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