Moulin Rouge! is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, kind of. It’s also based on the opera La Bohème, but again, only kind of. It’s been compared to the opera La Traviata, the novel Nana, and the musical Cabaret. Really it is none of these things and all of them. It is a sparkling cocktail, a loud, sugary retelling of every story ever told.

The film was released twenty years ago. It was Baz Luhrmann’s third feature film and the final instalment in his ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’. This framework feels somewhat arbitrary in hindsight since an element of theatricality governs all of Luhrmann’s filmmaking. His work centres the relationship between audience and performer, capturing the shiny contours of this complex dynamic. He buries the act of storytelling into the plot, and this theme is most effectively employed when the relationship between performance and telling is made obvious.

Moulin Rouge! cemented Luhrmann’s eye for maximalist tragedy and opulent love at first sight. It follows the love story of bohemian writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) and elegant courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman). There is a cunning villain and a troupe of trusted friends – the plot unfolds steadily, following the steady beat of every familiar pop song featured on the soundtrack. Indeed, the film opens on the bearded, despondent Christian, sat at his typewriter, mourning the loss of his love – the ending is pre-determined, and the trajectory sketched. From the first shot of a blood-stained handkerchief and the first echo of her hoarse cough (of which there are many), Satine’s fate is sealed.

But this inbuilt predictability is integral to its re-watchability, leveraging the broad ideas at the heart of the story to sketch something of mythic proportions. Everything is big, broad, confusing and loud. Everything is calibrated to make the audience feel like they are a teenager, navigating the over-saturated landscape of first love.

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Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

And that is why love is a product of performance in Moulin Rouge, something that demands an audience. This does not dilute the purity of love, rather it captures something equally weighty about what it exacts from naïve idealists. It is the pressure of learning someone, folding the way you see them into charged looks, reaching out and hoping they will do the same. It is an exchange of glances, a silent conversation about how you want to be seen and how you see someone else. Love is the decision to start singing and hope they will pick up where you leave off.

Indeed, music in Moulin Rouge! is wielded to draw out another aspect of young love. Connection is born from a shared understanding of the world, a sense that there is an emotional language that binds you together. Moulin Rouge! buys into this wholesale, and in doing so slyly manipulates the ethos of musical theatre. Rather than original music such as Sondheim and Bernstein composed for their shows, the film uses the likes of pre-existing Nirvana and Madonna to transcend the limits of conversation. Disparate songs are mashed together to weave a soundscape that is at best eclectic and at worst overwhelming, but it is always earnest.

It is this unwieldy mix of songs, this threading together of artists that have nothing to connect them besides the fact they were floating around in Luhrmann’s head at the right time, that creates a wonderfully implacable tone. One that feels like a youthful experiment, reminiscent of a time when the songs you knew where the ones played on the radio most frequently and everyone’s cultural dictionary was small enough to read in unison. Lyrics are traded back and forth playfully during the emotional climax of the film – ‘Elephant Love Medley’. The words of this mashup don’t make sense consecutively, but the emotional truth found in piecing something together, using colourful scraps of musical dialogue to make sense of the person in front of you and place you are in, (which happens to be the top of a hollowed out, metal elephant, but more on that later,) feels real.

Ironically, the setting of Moulin Rouge! is somewhat incidental, everything takes place in an alternative reality, where distance is elastic and space can be shaped and coloured by what people are feeling. Satine lives in the aforementioned giant, gilded elephant – an ornate, bejewelled stage for our two protagonists to fall in love. This distinctly unreal setting is representative of how place functions in the film. Locations are catalysts for feeling, transporting people to other, less literal places. One moment Satine is listening to Christian belt the high notes of ‘Your Song’ in her boudoir, and the next moment they have leapt onto a rooftop, backlit by stars and a cartoon moon, spinning through fog and gazing at one another through the sparkling confetti raining down.

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Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

It is a ridiculously on the nose visual metaphor: the purest kind of love is transportive. But once again there is a more potent truth hidden beneath this silky veneer. Moulin Rouge! interrogates the idea of reality, feeling is the only real thing for an audience to anchor themselves to, everything else is in constant flux, melting and spinning away. Early in the film, after Satine performs as the “Sparkling Diamond”, she changes into a red gown, with hopes of seducing the Duke. Moments after introducing the red dress, effectively kicking the plot forward, Satine takes it off with no explanation, adorning some lacey black lingerie instead. It may leave the audience wondering if there was a scene cut, a moment that could make sense of this inconsistency. Really, this would be a misinterpretation of Luhrmann’s visual grammar, he wants to guide us through a hall of mirrors where costumes and set pieces bounce off one another and distort the light. This film’s loose relationship to the idea of “real” teaches audiences’ a valuable lesson, realism is only useful when it informs the emotion of the story. In this case, youthful, all-encompassing love undercuts the barometers of reality.

After all, every story Moulin Rouge! draws from reaches its tragic conclusion when the sharp, intrusive demands of real-world forces puncture the softened sphere of love which cushions our protagonists. External forces encroach and upend, and the film chooses to invest in the rich landscape of love, regardless of its solidity. This too feels distinctly youthful. Almost all iterations of young love are plastered with a sell-by date. Your first love is rarely your last, or even your most important. To survive, the end must be kept out of sight, the present treated as the only thing that really counts. Reality is reframed, and youthful infatuation prevails.

Under the glamour and gloss, this is a story which utilises the tenets of the movie musical to tell a story for and about teenage love. Moulin Rouge! is as serious as it is silly, as brash as it is delicate, as ungainly as it is well-paced. These disparate elements capture the feeling of untampered youthfulness, while also speaking to the peculiar magic of movies.