When Moulin Rouge! came to theaters in 2001, I was a 10-year-old girl out in Iowa, confident she would wind up on Broadway and devouring anything to do with musicals. Yet as the oldest child of two conservative parents, I was also forbidden to watch PG-13 movies, especially ones about singing courtesans and sexy French people. With this in mind, I was double-determined to see Moulin Rouge! Eventually, I would "borrow" a VHS of the movie from a classmate, but before that happened, I got my hands on the soundtrack and would sit in my room, totally obsessing over Ewan McGregor's voice and trying to put together a plotline just by listening to the CD over and over again. At that point, there were about a thousand different things I didn't know about that film, even though I was already certain it was my favorite movie of all time. One big thing I didn't know about Moulin Rouge!? Its roots in ancient mythology.
I didn't learn that fact until later in life, and it's made my love for the film even stronger. Older, wiser, and even more obsessed with Baz Luhrmann flicks than I was as a kid, Moulin Rouge is still high on my list; if your hobbies include recreating the "Elephant Love Medley" scene in your bathroom mirror with a hairbrush, we're probably going to be friends. It's such a powerful musical, and its mythological basis just adds to this. While I've known for a long time that Moulin Rouge! is based on Puccini's La Boheme, I recently discovered that the story also comes from an ancient Greek legend. Yes, really: Moulin Rouge! is totally inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Here's a simple refresher on the sad story of Orpheus and Eurydice — there are a handful of different versions out there, but they all essentially end the same way. Orpheus and Eurydice get hitched, and while she's out celebrating with her neighbors, a satyr (think Phil in Hercules) starts to harass her. As she tries to escape, her foot lands in a pile of snakes. One bites her, she dies, and Orpheus whips out his acoustic guitar and cries about it. The animals and gods around him tear up, too, and encourage him to go rescue his wife from the underworld. Since Orpheus is the son of Apollo, he totes can. So, he slips down and talks to Hades and Persephone about it, and they let Eurydice go on the condition that Orpheus cannot turn around and look at her until they are both back in sunlight or else she'll be gone forever. Long story short, dude can't hear her footsteps as they climb, and right as they are about to reach daylight, he turns around and loses her for good.
On Moulin Rouge's use of the tale, Mental Floss cited a quote from Luhrmann's co-writer, Craig Pierce, from the book Singing a New Tune:
"You can see Christian's garrett, which was across from the Moulin Rouge, but the Moulin Rouge becomes a symbol for the Underworld at large. Satine getting out of the Mouline Rouge becomes symbolic for her getting out of the Underworld one day."
At the time of the film's release, Philip French of The Guardian wrote in his review, "Luhrmann, whose professional roots are in lyric theatre, claims that Moulin Rouge is a reworking of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, but the connection is tenuous." I wholeheartedly disagree with that claim and think that Moulin Rouge! is a moving, modernized tribute to the myth, as it demonstrates the pop-flavor of these stories that keeps people reading them.
And Luhrmann likely felt the same way. Like a lot of filmmakers in the '90s and the early '00s, the Moulin Rouge! director was no stranger to modern-day retellings of classic works, thanks to Romeo + Juliet. This film joined others like Derek Jarman's Edward II, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, Tim Blake Nelson's O, and the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which came from Homer's Odyssey. The fact that so many old stories were being retold at the end of the millennium, including Moulin Rouge!, kind of makes me think that our culture was trying to figure out how to pack up its stories and move into the future. This feels particularly true of Moulin Rouge! and how it uses Orpheus and Eurydice.
If you've seen Moulin Rouge!, you can probably recognize which parts the movie borrowed. The super duper musical Christian is the Orpheus who must save Satine aka Eurydice from the seedy underbelly of the nightclub. His impatience and fervor ultimately put the relationship under fire, and the last, tragic scene begins with him trying to leave the Moulin Rouge with his back to Satine.
Interesting, right? Moulin Rouge! was already a classic, but knowing that it incorporated such a fascinating mythological tale makes watching my beloved movie an even better experience.
Images: Giphy; 20th Century Fox