Moulin Rouge!: From Passive to Active Protagonist
In story writing, there is a common advice that you need to have an active protagonist rather than a passive one. An active protagonist is one that makes decisions and things happen while a passive protagonist is one who is shaped by decisions made by others. The passive protagonist drifts along with the current of the story instead of creating the story themselves. It’s easily more engaging and entertaining to watch someone make these decisions, even if we don’t always agree with them. Active protagonists become interesting and engaging characters no matter what they do, like the diabolical Walter White in Breaking Bad, instead of a passive, hallow, totem pole of a person who is whisked from scene to scene. Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!, however, begins with a largely passive protagonist on purpose to forge one of the most stellar narrative act shifts of all time.
Moulin Rouge! tells a typical, tired, and superficial love story that has been seen in Hollywood films since the golden age. (Like, come on, falling for a prostitute? Rookie mistake, pal). And yet, it overcomes superficiality by fully embracing its lavish and melodramatic tale in all aspects of its production: from acting, to set design, music, and editing. The film becomes larger than life because of them and seals its position as a cult classic. Moulin Rouge! encompasses all things postmodern as it uses pastiche and references to old cinema as well as plays on our knowledge of knowing popular music but I’ll get to those later. First, the story:
The main protagonist is a young, penniless, Englishman named Christian (Ewan McGregor) who comes to Paris to write. He ends up living with the bohemians who frequent the Moulin Rouge cabaret club and want Christian to write a play that will be sold to the club – but he is hesitant. He wants to write about love but has never experienced it. They go to the club, expecting to set up Christian with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the star courtesan at the Moulin Rouge to sell the play. At the same time however, we learn that Satine is sick and dying but wants to be a “real actress.” The owner of the club, Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) promises Satine that she’ll get this chance by sleeping with the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh) who will then invest in the Moulin Rouge but because of the shenanigans of the bohemians, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke. The scene that follows is the transition the first act to the second so I’ll be more specific and detailed about it in the next segment but in short – Satine and Christian end up falling in love and have an affair in secret while convincing the real Duke that Satine will be “his” while they work on preparing Christian’s play at the club like a real theatre.
By all means, Christian is a largely passive protagonist from the get-go. We know from the beginning that Christian is depressed in the future as he recounts what happened upon his arrival in Paris but we still do not have a sense that he has done something yet. We do know, however, that he has goals: to write and find love. But, aside from these goals, the steps for him start along this path are relatively out of his hands and controlled by external characters. The bohemians are the ones that aim to sell at the Moulin Rouge and are also the ones responsible for the mix-up between the Duke and Christian with the handkerchief. Furthermore, Satine is the one who approaches him to dance and then come to her chamber, even though she believes he is someone else. Christian is whisked around and unconfident as he dances and enters her chamber. He is naïve to her sexual advances and this creates a comedic impasse where he is trying to recite poetry to her while she thinks he’s trying to “recite poetry” in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge fashion. Everything seems like a mess while Satine starts rolling around having orgasmic reactions to lines of Elton John and Christian is getting nowhere. As we, the audience, start to recognize the lyrics of “Your Song,” we can already predict how things will go: He will sing this slow and sweet song and woo her over as the quiet romantic. We’re ready for it. But then IT happens…
Christian belts out the lyrics: “my gift is my song…” with the force of his entire soul –silencing everything else, the only sound his own voice echoing as its own hymnal choir, cascading through the Moulin Rouge, and literally lighting up all the lights in night-time Paris. The audience is left speechless and awestruck just like Satine in that moment as heterosexual men start questioning their sexuality and heterosexual women start wondering why their partner isn’t Ewan God-damn McGregor. In that single moment, expectations are shattered and Christian has taken full control over his destiny to become a major player and active protagonist for the rest of the movie. He sings the song with the delicateness that we expected but also with the same force he opens with. Satine falls for him and together they convince Zidler and the Duke to invest in his play “Spectacular Spectacular.” Since we began with someone passive, the strength of this transition to the second act is made that much more significant due to the initial contrast, expectations of the character, and of the choice of song; both of which were expected to be quiet.
The scene is also brilliant for other reasons that I mentioned earlier, namely the acting performances and postmodern references to other movies. While the character change works from a narrative standpoint alone, the performances of McGregor and Kidman really sell it more than anything else. Few voices could capture that scale and power. Kidman deserves a ton of praise for the scene too since the reactions to hearing it seems genuine and invested. The audience’s voyeurism into her psyche during her close-up reactions are the very same that we would identify with given the same position. The movie is also “postmodern” in the sense that it builds from other pop-culture and media references to keep the audience enchanted and engaged. The songs aside from Elton John’s “Your Song” include the Police’s “Roxanne,” Madonna’s “Like a virgin,” and Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” These are recognizable pieces that are already loved and will get people excited. The particular “Your Song” sequence, however, features two famous cinema references: the first being the street light spin around from the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, this time the street lamp being the Eiffel tower itself, showing a grandeur in acknowledging and perhaps trying to one-up the original. Finally, there is the reference to George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon when the moon in the sky during the sequence has a face and sings as an operatic backdrop to Christian which, like the original, suggests a degree of spectacle that can only be obtained through cinema.
Moulin Rouge! shows that a single moment can change everything with the right build-up, delivery, and direction. The story brings nothing new in terms of a love story (and if anything is a little problematic) but because of the shift from passive to active protagonist, we can ignore the superficiality. We fully believe Christian’s newfound confidence, and can have an absolute blast going forward until the inevitable doom in the end. Let it be a lesson to new writers that there is a reason you need to understand the rules before you can break them.