Satine as a Chthonian Performer in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge!’

Satine, the Moulin Rouge’s sense-making and driven décadent, approaches and attracts the spectator and in this precise moment of suggested closeness, she resigns, a legend, untouchable, merely for money, for a few hours, the curtains still closed, never to be fully opened, revelatory. The moving image of her is intimate, the prolonged close-ups are significantly interrupted by one meaningful jump cut telling the truth like a prophecy. She allows the illusion that she is objectified, although she truly operates as a very self-aware subject, despite the long period of her not knowing that she is condemned to death through sickness. She subjects herself if she feels that this would be the authentic thing to do, she does not deviate from her nature, although she is a mistress of masquerade, she lives out her many facets.

She has a mind of her own, but in her underground garderobe she keeps a caged green bird and after her death, Christian keeps it in front of his window, on the balcony, but still it is not free, he will not free it, he will not let it fly, let her fly away, for good, ultimately, symbolically, he holds on to her, to the inspirational force of hers in a cage, with her colours, her facets, her roles that define who she is and who she was, to him, to the Moulin Rouge and to his art. He keeps her freedom at a borderline, between his room and the sky, a seemingly loving gesture, but Satine’s bird is still caged, now close to the sky, but not quite, again the invisible leash of obsession is to be seen here despite his true and good-natured love.

The way Satine is presented by Luhrmann and which ways she should represent for Zidler are two different things. Luhrmann demonstrates her beauty through symbolism, décor and comparative images, Zidler manifests her as a knockout pretty role-player he sympathises with. But this is minimalism, there is much more going on here. The spectator sees in her what he/she wants to see as she makes men believe what they want to believe, but if the spectator craves to see the truth he/she must look for it as it is there, not despite the dominant use of colours and accessories but because they are expressing the meaning, completing the puzzle. Her ornament characterises her and as the spectator witnesses what her outer appearance does not obviously but metaphorically express, namely her approaching death, she is the most honest and exposed figure in the story. She is not simply made up, her story is told through images, from every corner, everything concerning her has a reason.

Luhrmann knows how to play with colours, with a nuanced chiaroscuro technique, they attach additional meaning to the characters and their nature, the antagonists and the plot, they draw the action and they signify the spectacle. Whether something or someone is pretty or beautiful is a highly relative and subjective question of taste, perspective and thought. It gets even more complicated if one separates these two concepts from each other when focusing on Luhrmann’s films and their heroines, especially because of the written artwork by Shakespeare and Fitzgerald. Luhrmann’s heroines are meaningful, thought-through, detailed, and they are ideas formed into images or images formed into ideas? Labelling them would merely reduce them, restrict their meaning and abolish their character. The point is that one cannot categorise them and summarise them with one single word that means something else for every single person. Is there only a ‘pretty’ or a ‘beautiful’? Is that everything a woman or a painting or a film consist of? The surface is a mirror-image of our reflections.

The image is a revelatory expression of the idea, not a copy, but an extroverted recreation telling its own truth. Colour is a symbol of inner truth exposed in the outer appearance, the façade, in this case trustworthy and artful, not covering up and artificial. Surface must not be ignored as it contains depth, but only if the spectator looks for it, they are interdependent. Politics create the concept of aesthetics. Every idea has its own projection and image. Transformation means action, evolution, change and therefore it is real, both the ‘pretty’ and the ‘beautiful’ are objects of transformation. An image is not just an image, the spectator’s reflective imagination nourishes it. The senses make the image what it is, what it means and what it evokes: ideas.

Prettiness may hide or unspectacularly accentuate a cruel or a kind persona and therefore there is a reason to look closer behind the outer appearance or focus on the explanatory details, it may be deceptive (so may behaviour), not because it is pretty per se, but because the pretty may be misused, used or abused for specific purposes. The counterparty of the pretty is not the beautiful, it is the seemingly unaccented. Everything is real, real is an absolute. ‘Construction’ is revelatory, not only the totally naked, minimalism is denial and therefore far more suspicious as there is not much laid bare, which suggests that something has been hidden, again for a reason, on purpose, as everything, even if it is subconsciously. Is the pretty deemed ‘impure’ because it has been though-through or because it is constantly stigmatised and then dismissed? Art is a form to be constantly reformed, art without form is pointless and form without art is senseless. To rephrase an understanding of Kracauer’s idea is that truth is the jigsaw puzzle reinforced by ornament, it is either used to challenge the discovery of truth or it accentuates the search of truth. One of the choices when it comes to the surface lies in the decorative depth a priori.

In Montmartre, the Parisian centre of Bohemian art, the ambiguously regarded setting of the Moulin Rouge is introduced by Christian (name!) and so is its emasculating heroine: Satine, introduced through the voice of a man, in love with her, in retrospective, after her decease, praising her post-mortem, the first shot black and white, like the past, like an everlasting obituary of despair, the once shiny and glamorous Moulin Rouge, now faded away, a wonderland in ruins, a memorial in oblivion, a reminder of loss, lifeless without the star of the ‘kingdom of night-time pleasures’, the ‘Sparkling Diamond’ Satine, the dynamic red motor of the windmill that now has lost its charming blush. It is he who writes his, her, their story, he writes her down, a muse dying for art’s sake, with every word that he writes her heartbeats decrease until the culminating point of the spectacle is reached, until their story finishes with exactly the same moment, she is finished, art finished her, the life has been sucked out of her just as the spirit of the Moulin Rouge disappeared with her contagious death that infected the phantasmagorical world of ‘truth, beauty, freedom and love’.

The entire survival of all the ideals and the Moulin Rouge itself depended on one single ‘creature of the underworld’ who ‘could not afford to love’, an acherontic ill-fated star, shining despite sickness. It needed an eye of an artist to do her persona and her story the justice she deserves, rendering her immortal on paper. The second shot of Satine exposes her like a fallen star, with glitter rain and the song ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, crushing the earth-stricken onlookers like a hypnotising blizzard, they are staring up at her as if she were an ungraspable fata morgana, the moment she starts to sing the lines ‘The French are glad to die for love’, like her own requiem, a futuristic quick ‘out-of-breath’ shot of her dying in Christian’s arms in the end, is cut into the goddess’ facial close-up during her first singing appearance like a haunting fore-sight.

After the silent listening to her, she is lowered, elevated, like a coffin, paraded across the room and dynamically swings dominantly through the masses of admirers, now within reach. She is then carried and circulated like the heart of the erotic windmill, the men as her vehicle, her army, her supporters, forming in flesh the circle of life of the Moulin Rouge. Whilst singing the last line of the song, she, the heart of the machinery (shown through her jewellery, window frame and her chamber being positioned in the middle of the Moulin Rouge territory), is suffocating above the masses, the star falls and is brought behind the curtain where the show goes on until it doesn’t. The audience fooled and blind, and she again paraded, this time amongst two rows of Zidler’s competitive ‘Diamond Dogs’, unconscious, fragile, subjected to endless and gossiping gazes.

woman in white dress hanging on pole
Photo by Pixabay on

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