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Moulin Rouge and the art of Kitsch

The spring of 2001 saw the release of Moulin Rouge! unexpectedly shake the movie industry and the box office simultaneously. Despite the many awards, including 8 nominations at the Academy Awards, and the impressive box office numbers, the movie quickly became very polarizing for audiences. Love and hate seemed to be the only two possible reactions to the movie itself.


But that should not come as a surprise. The film was directed by Baz Luhrman, who has consistently been, throughout his career, one of the most polarizing filmmakers of his generation. I still have to meet anyone who simply doesn't mind his movies (which include Romeo+Juliet, Australia and The Great Gatsby); it's either absolute love or absolute loathing. There is no middle ground with him. And that's mainly because he himself doesn't compromise when it comes to his style, which is so characteristic at this point (fast and frantic editing, a vivid use of flashy colors and sparkly and stories about true and unyielding love) that it's his a trademark. Such a defined style hardly leaves space for the viewer's indifference. And that style finds its compass in one single concept.

MASTERING KITSCH

What defines this movie is not that it's a musical or that it's a period piece; it's that it's an ode to Kitsch, and it's there that lies the key to understanding the visual, aesthetic and narrative choices of this movie. So, what is Kitsch?
Kitsch (/ˈkɪtʃ/; loanword from German, also called cheesiness and tackiness) is a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. The word was first applied to artwork that was a response to certain divisions of 19th-century art with aesthetics that favored what later art critics would consider to be exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama. Hence, 'kitsch art' is closely associated with 'sentimental art'. Kitsch is also related to the concept of camp, because of its humorous and ironic nature.
It's necessary to underline that the term is generally pejorative in its connotation, implying gaudiness and uselessness. That's partially because aestethically and thematically, Kitsch it's an art of empty appropriation; here's something Chinese, here's something Indian, here's Renaissance art... always taking the look but never the content of whatever appropriates. Kitsch is taking the DaVinci's Mona Lisa and printing it on T-shirts.


And that, in very few words, it's what Luhrman does in Moulin Rouge! (and most of his movies).

ABOUT THE MOVIE

Moulin Rouge! tells the story of Christian, a British writer, that moves to Paris to become part of the Bohemian circles. There he accidentally meets Satine, a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge and falls madly in love with her. But she's not free to love him back, because she is "sold" to a rich duke who is going to pay for the Moulin Rouge to become a real theater. So Christian manages to land the role of play writer for their first play and so continue his affair with her. And shenanigans ensue. You really don't need me to tell you what this movie is about, you all know; it's a loose campy and kitsch adaptation of the The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas fils.


Why Kitsch you say? Well, sentimental and melodramatic story? Check. Exaggerated and over the top approach? Check. Gaudy Visuals? Check. Appropriation of other culture's aesthetics? Check. Using and abusing popular culture visuals and icons? Check. It's the perfect Kitsch recipe.

That was achieved thanks to a lot of different elements: photography, production design, acting, story... and of course, Costume Design, which is what we'll be focussing on here.

THE COSTUME DESIGN

Baz Luhrman's style owns as much to him and his creativity as it does to Catherine Martin, the woman behind is all. Who? That's what many of you will be asking and, unfortunately, it comes as no surprise. So it's time to mend that.

She's the creator in the shadows. She is both the wife and recurrent collaborator of the director, and by recurrent we mean that she has worked in all his movies, from 1992's Strictly Ballroom to this year's The Get Down. She has acted as both Production Design and Costume Design for him throughout the years, and has received plenty of nominations because of it (having won many of those). So, in my opinion, she's as responsible of consolidating such particular style as he is.

In the particular case of Moulin Rouge!, which is what will concern us today, she is credited as Production Design and as Costume Design alongside Angus Strathie. Let's see how she highlighted that kitsch concept through the costumes in order to achieve the vision the director wanted by thoroughly going through Satine's iconic wardrobe.

THE PERIOD FACTOR

Talking about period in such a movie seems a bit counterproductive, for the whole concept of kitsch hardly cares about period accuracy; it's the icon that matters, not the truth behind it. But, even then, it feels good to clarify that the costuming doesn't follow period, just in case someone thought this was how the late 1890's looked like.

As is with any movie that disregards period, the first question we need to answer is "why?". Why does Moulin Rouge! consciously avoids period? Well, in this particular case, the film attempts to be a distillation of the spirit of the Belle Époque whilst, at the same time, a translation of it for modern audiences. What do I mean by that? Well, it doesn't only attempt to capture the giddy, heady thrill of the sinful Montmartre and the sordid realities of the Bordellos, it also tries to capture it in a more modern way, so that audiences today will fully understand how it felt back then. To put it simply; they filmed a night at the Moulin Rouge as if it was a night at the Studio 54. Which is the same Luhrman would do later in his career with The Great Gatsby.

The key is to understand that the movie is a TRANSLATION instead of a REPRESENTATION. Because of this, the designer doesn't constrict herself with the period accurate clothing guidelines and instead is able to go wild with the visuals in order to transmit the sense of cutting edge fashion and sexuality of the period as the director wanted.


As I'm sure we've mentioned before on this blog, this approach is not one we generally favor (read this to understand why), but in this case, the whole movie is so radical style-wise that I truly believe that an actual period wardrobe would have stuck out like a sore thumb. In the end, the highly stylized-costumes are helping define the characters throughout the whole movie whilst also enhancing the dreamlike quality of the movie, which is everything a good costume design should do. So I can hardly complain.

THE SPARKLING DIAMOND

Moulin Rouge! is a strange combination of glitz and decadence, and what better character represents that if not Nicole Kidman's Satine. She's the main dancer at the Moulin Rouge. She's a star. She's the Sparkling Diamond of the Moulin Rouge.


And that's exactly how the movie introduces her to us. The first time we see her, she's presented to us wearing a diamond-like sparkly stage costume and hanging from a trapeze, not only dazzling our main character, Christian, but also dazzling us, the audience.

The costume itself is extremely simple in its conception; it consists of a beaded corset with fringed skirt in the back, black satin opera length gloves and a top hat. Simple, yet effective story-wise; its main function in the story is to quickly and clearly establish Satine as a Star, as an Icon in her own right. And that it certainly achieves it.


That immediate recognition of the character as an Icon is achieved through borrowing. Borrowing from the imaginary of the Hollywood Screen legends. From Marlene Dietrich's iconic top hat to Natalie Wood's sparkly costumes in Gypsy, this costume is built to fit the idea we have of a movie Star.


And that's pretty much the same approach taken with the next costume, which she changes to during that same first musical number.


This second outfit consists of a nude bodice covered with pink beaded hearts over her breasts and lady-parts with a huge pink fluffy set of boas attached to her derriere. It's once again, meant to enhance her star-quality and not her true persona.

So, why the costume change? Well, as she changes, Ziedler tells her about the Duke and the whole "seduction" begins, and so the softer-looking dress seems more fitting to the theme of "love". The color is particularly important in underlining that idea. Also, the fact that she ends up shaking her lower-beaded heart over Christian's face justifies the existence of the costume, as she's shaking a litteral heart in front of the guy that spends most of the movie babbling about love.

On top of that, add to the mix just how artificial and tacky this "love" dress is and you'll see what Satine things of love at the beginning of the story: as something silly and superficial.


And that is how, with only one scene (and two very effective costumes), the movie has introduced us to Satine as a Star and as someone who beliefs love is a façade. As the movie progresses we'll get to peel the layers off to reveal the human persona behind the icon, but it will take Christian's love to actually have her lower her guard and start that process, so her next outfit is still set on the whole glamorous/fake side of the spectrum.


During her attempt to seduce Christian (whilst thinking he is the Duke) in her private room, she's presented wearing a rather revealing outfit that consists of a black corset, sheer black stockings with garter belt and a penoir (a long, sheer dressing gown). Whilst her previous costumes were stage costumes for stage performances, this is supposedly for a "private" moment. Then why is it so theatrical and over the top? Easy answer: she's still acting. She approaches the seduction the same way she approaches a stage performance.

In the end, what marks this as a great Costume Design, is that even for the costumes I don't really like (as is the case with this one) there's still a clear reason why they are the way they are. In this case, it's necessary to mark the fact that she's still acting, even when she's off stage.


Because of this, it doesn't feel exploitative when the design is actually highlighting her sex appeal to the point where it's actually gaudy. She's forcing an image of herself as a sex symbol onto Christian. And in the end, it's the perfect design to hint at the idea that she's someone who is always performing. It's how she survives.

Next in her long list of the designs is probably one of the most iconic: the red dress with which she's turning herself into a "smoldering seductress" for the duke, but instead ends up getting romanced by Christian.


The designs consist of a red satin gown with a corseted top laced in the back and it's topped by a faux bustle. It is probably one of the most important costumes for her because it poses a serious turning point for her character. It's the first crack in the "Star" façade she's  been showing the audience up until now, which obviously happens during the "falling in love" medley with Christian.


This is actually really noticeable in the fact that this is the first dress we see her wearing that's actually not that artificial. That it's achieved by mixing actual period fashion (albeit fashion from around the 1880's, not the 1890's) and the feel of contemporary red carpet dresses. It's mixing both of her worlds: herself and the stage world.


Note that the color chosen for the design is a vibrant red, which in popular iconography tends to be associated with passion and love. So it's only logical.

It's a clever design and the perfect one for her to fall in love. And gives way to a string of more day to day dresses that allow us to see her as she truly is. We see that through the long montage sequence in which the rehearsals for the play take place.


Suddenly her costumes are way more simple, more grounded in reality (even if it's a highly stylized and heighten reality). There is no sparkle, no bright shinny and exaggerated colors... we are seeing her, not "the sparkling diamond".

Another noteworthy element; she's barely showing any skin. When we meet her, we are told that she wants to leave behind her life as a cabaret dancer, and here we are finally seeing it. She's aiming to dress classy, as a lady, not a dancer.

It's also during this part of the movie that the first exotic elements are filtered to the costumes themselves. She's shown sporting a Chinese inspired gown during rehearsals, but that doesn't seem relevant to the character or the story and there isn't any other Chinese reference in the whole of the movie. So we have to assume that it's there for the kitsch factor.

One last note; most of her costumes are in a wide palette of reds, highlighting the thrill she feels at being truly in love.

The montage culminates into a very intimate scene between Satine and Christian; the only moment in the movie where she's completely unguarded. And that's highlighted by the fact that she's show wearing a simple cotton robe, the total opposite of her usual artificiality.


But as everything seems to be going perfect for her (her new bright love for Christian is actually helping her realize her dream of becoming an actress) the unavoidable misery returns for our Star. And when it does, she's appropriately dressed in black. As she goes back to the Duke, Satine wears a well-fitted black velvet gown trimmed with brown fur along the train and one shoulder. 


This is an overly dramatic dress that once again heightens the theatricality both of her and the movie itself. The whole design makes her look more like part of the architecture of the tower than anything else, and once you add the stunning necklace to the mix, she becomes a decorative object entirely, which is what the Duke desires of her.

And that is appropriate, after all, she is selling herself in exchange for keeping the end of the play as it is (meaning the Sultan doesn't get the bordello girl). She is turning herself into an object, a mannequin.

It's also worth noting, that this is the first time she's worn anything remotely sparkly since she fell in love with Christian, and she only does it because the Duke forces her to wear the necklace. Which is rather telling of what he wants of her; unlike Christian, he wants Satine the Star, not Satine the Woman.

This prompts Satine to try and escape, but the plan fails and Ziedler forces her to lie to Christian and cast him aside so that "the show can go on". During the scene, Satine is dressed in a deceptively simple grey suit.


The sombre look of the dress helps to communicate just how hard this is for her. This looks like a funeral dress after all. Also, the addition of the veil speaks volumes; she needs to cover her face in order to be able to lie to him. She's protecting herself. It's almost as if she uses that veil to shield him from what she's really feeling.
On top of that, note that this is a rather constricting costume, which helps transmit to the audience exactly how she's feeling: constricted by the hard choices she needs to take and suffocated by her own circumstances (mainly that she's dying and that she might never see her love again).


At this point, she has lost any agency she might have had in her life, and that's why these past two last designs are the most constricting ones in the whole story. She has hit rock bottom, and all that's left to her is the play; the show must go on.

The play turns out to be a larger than life, Bollywood style operetta. It's loud, it's big, it's bright, it's bombastic, it's pure spectacle; it's her life. And to fit the tone, she's dressed in a beautiful over the top Indian-influenced sparkly stage costume.


Why the sudden Indian aesthetic? Well, you might say it's always been there, not in the costumes, but in the overall style of the movie (editing, colors...). Bollywood is, after all, the ultimate kitsch factory. It seems only logical to finish up the whole thing with this enormous homage to it.

Also, take in mind that 19th century Europe is undeniable fascinated with the exotic and the iconography of exoticism. One must take into the account that deep into Colonialism, Europe became swarmed with images of the East: of China, India and the Colonies, which fascinated both artist and the rest of the population. And it's from that fascination, that primitive fantasy of the East, that most of the visuals in this movie come from. I like to thing that this Indian themed finale is both an homage to Bollywood and 19th century Exoticism.

Does this mean this is not "appropriating" from another culture? Of course it doesn't! It is appropriation. But kitsch appropriates even from our own culture. So within the context of this movie, it doesn't really strike as offensive.


But, let's get back on track. The other very important element in the costumes of the finale, besides the Indian aspect of them, is the color themselves. One might say that the ending of the movie acts also as the summary of the whole movie, being the play about their love story and all. Because of this, I find very clever the color palette chosen for it. The first costume for the play is made in black (meant to echo the first costume she has), and the last in white. A small detail, yet terribly helpful story-wise; it's all about honing home the idea that love purifies.


And so we reach the last of Satine's costume, and also the most iconic in the whole movie: the white wedding stage costume. It's memorable because she wears it during the grand finale, but also because it manages to be completely unique and different. It masterfully combines apparent simplicity with extreme stylization spiced with exoticism. This design is the masterpiece of the Costume Design Department the same way that the play is the masterpiece within the movie.


The dreamlike feel of the design helps create the mood of the scene, elevating Satine and turning her into this angel of love as she boldly proclaims her purest and deepest love for Christian, thus redeeming herself. It's only fitting that she's dressed in white from head to toe then. Her love for Christian has purified her.

But, without a doubt, the greatest achievement this design has to offer (from a narrative standpoint) is being the complete and radical opposite of her first design whilst still feeling like it belongs in the same movie.


Her character is a call-girl with a heart of gold that falls in love with a poet and finds freedom and truth by embracing that love, thus purifying her soul and sins. Therefore, the designs have her go from a black, diamond-like beaded corset that leaves little to the imagination and turns her into a shiny thing her boss dangles (literally, she's on a trapeze) in front of potential buyers, to a white, ethereal full-gown that elevates her to this pure being that will give her life for love. Quite impressive for a movie that uses cartoon sound effects whenever some of the characters move.

After the grand number that proclaims the lovers victorious, she collapses to the unavoidable end: death. There's certainly no need to remark the poetic aspect of having her die in all white. Her character follows the narrative canons of the Mary Magdalene story; the prostitute that redeems herself through love, truth and freedom and, according to this movie, also beauty, and the designs for the movie follow that exact art: from sin to purity, from darkness to light. And so Satine rises from her self inflicted inferno and reaches the heavens through love.

FREEDOM, BEAUTY, TRUTH AND LOVE: FINAL THOUGHTS

I started this review by boldly proclaiming the polarizing effect of Baz Luhrman; it's love or hate. In our particular case, it's hate. Profound, deep, dark hate. We boldly proclaim that we are firmly set on the "hate" side of the spectrum. We do not like Moulin Rouge!, nor any of his movies frankly, but one can hate something and still see the merits of it, much the same way that one can love something and see the faults. True, we despise his approach to storytelling, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't know how to work with visuals, or that there is nothing to talk about in relation to this particular movie. Which, in the end, that's why we got down to writing this article (which, granted, wasn't easy, because it implied watching the movie again). In the end, no one can deny that Moulin Rouge! changed the way Hollywood saw musicals and it left behind a set of iconic and memorable costumes and sets.

It did that by boldly going for a "balls to wall" kitsch style which he has since mastered to the point that I bet he could do it with closed eyes (more so if he counts with the ever present help of Catherine Martin). By turning every single element to the 200%, from the melodrama to the acting to the visuals themselves, and by appropriating anything and everything (from Bollywood aesthetics to the modern Diva iconography to the style of cartoon animation to the heighten melodrama of the 1950's), he created a world closer to fantasy than real life where freedom, beauty, truth and love are the only things that matter. 

And that's why these designs work. They wouldn't work in any other movie, that's for sure. The whole movie is over-stylized and exaggerated. That's why the fact that the designs have their footing more in the look and style of the Classical Hollywood than the actual period actually works. By turning Satine into a glittering diva instead of a 19th century cabaret dancer, he manages to bedazzle us and wonder us at her and her world, which is something I truly doubt you could have done by dressing her like a 19th century call girl.

We want to wrap this up by posing a question; do you like Moulin Rouge! and/or Luhrman's movies? Share it with us in the comment section below!

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If you want to browse through Moulin Rouge!'s full wardrobe, 
check out this spectacular gallery by The Costumer's Guide

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