Death, Disease, and Corsets: 20 Years Later, 'Moulin Rouge!' Is More Relevant Than Ever

Paging Christina Aguilera, Pink, and Lil' Kim.

Death, Disease, and Corsets: Moulin Rouge Is More Relevant than Ever
Photo: Alamy

As if you needed another reminder of how old you are, it's been 20 years since Moulin Rouge! was released into the world, and karaoke nights have never been the same. The film's decadence feels particularly potent today, two decades after its release, as we begin to slowly return to some semblance of normalcy.

While it still feels too early to say we live in a fully post-pandemic world, if my social media feeds are any indication, people are more than ready to party. Brunches are getting brunchier, happy hours are starting earlier, and airports are packed to the brim with folks desperate to go anywhere that isn't the home they've been confined to for 15 months.

Many have made the obvious connections between 2021 (and, presumably, 2022 and beyond) to the Roaring Twenties — an era of excess that was the direct result of another pandemic coming to an end — and you know, Prohibition (it turns out people really don't like being told they can't drink). But 2021 America has striking similarities to 1899 Paris, at least as far as it was portrayed in the film.

For starters, there's the turn-of-the-century fashion that's just as relevant today — corsets, headpieces, and ornate jewelry are all Very On Trend at the moment. I have yet to see a flapper-inspired fringe dress out in the wild, but I have seen several Vivienne Westwood corset knockoffs IRL, typically paired with — dare I say it — low-rise jeans. But instead of layering on the sartorial opulence for a show-stealing performance at a Parisian nightclub, we're getting glammed up for a "casual" night out with friends because, well, we've all been stuck inside for a year.

In a way, though, we're preparing for our own individual post-pandemic performances. Each reunion with a loved one after so much time apart now feels like an opportunity to be unapologetically over-the-top. Wear the corset, drink the champagne, dance until 2 a.m. When you've experienced a world so devoid of hope and happiness, any chance to indulge feels like a treat but also a mandate. How can you not celebrate after everything we've collectively endured?

Moulin Rouge! provides a helpful blueprint to follow. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the lavish feature was an instant hit and was awarded Oscars for production design and costume design in 2002. Its visual richness, of course, is a key part of the story: The movie is set at the height of the French capital's bohemian renaissance. Cancan dancers frolic about, champagne flows, and creativity is a form of currency. Ewan McGregor portrays Christian, whose raw writerly talent gets him in a room with Satine, played by Nicole Kidman, the star courtesan at the Moulin Rouge.

When Christian breaks out in arguably the most moving rendition of Elton John's "Your Song" to ever exist, Satine immediately falls for him, at first thinking that he's the wealthy duke who will fund the Moulin Rouge's expansion into an actual stage theater. Confusion ensues, but ultimately, the two star-crossed lovers become inseparable despite everything working against them.

Death, Disease, and Corsets: Moulin Rouge Is More Relevant than Ever

The festivities, though, can't mask the realities. While the perseverance of true love is a central theme in Moulin Rouge! — spoiler — there is no happy ending. Christian and Satine are ultimately pulled apart by, in his words, "a force darker than jealousy and stronger than love." She has tuberculosis, which at one point had killed one in seven of all people that had ever lived and is sometimes considered the forgotten plague. She keeps her illness secret, presumably to protect Christian and to keep the party going for as long as possible. It isn't until they can finally be together that the severity of her condition is revealed.

The audience gets a mere glimpse into Christian's life after Satine's death. Her dying wish is that he puts their love story to paper. He manages to do it, but not without battling severe depression along the way. He struggles to process everything that happened as the world continues on. As I rewatched the film, I found myself relating more to that struggle than anything else — living through a pandemic, it turns out, is not something that's easy to make sense of, even as those around you pretend to be unfazed.

We don't know what becomes of our penniless writer, though considering the rollercoaster of emotions he experienced during that year at the Moulin Rouge, hopefully the guy got some much-needed therapy.

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