After being visually blown away and rather embarrassed by all the pseudo-Victorian naughtiness I had forgotten about (PG-13? Really? PG 13?!?) I had to sit down and ask what made this eclectic musical and cinematic collage work? After all, all the costumes are period perfect, but the music is a hodge-podge of contemporary rock songs with a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein and a few shots at Walt Disney (I've always thought Tinker Bell fit better into the world of absinthe and show girls than in a kids movie). Well the cliched answer would be that it had a great story. That's true. It had a good story: the myth of Orpheus retold (see the nod to the Opera in the song "Spectacular! Spectacular!"). What really makes the film work is that it finds a way to merge its story perfectly with its eclectic visual and musical style in a way that strikes a deep cord with the modern mind.
In his revolutionary poem "The Wasteland," T.S. Eliot correctly identifies the key component of the modern mind: Fragmentation. The old world of Europe's Enlightenment Liberalism was blown to pieces on the battlefields of World War I and we've been struggling ever since to pick those bits up and arrange them again into a coherent worldview. Tennyson foresaw this fragmentation coming in the mid-eighteen century when he hoped that Victorian zeal would help "mind and soul according well make one music as before". Later, W.B. Yates would prognosticate the failure of that hope claiming "the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world". Still, the poets and authors tried to hold our world together with their dreams of "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and most of all Love." "Moulin Rouge" is a retrospect on a century of Bohemian effort to put Humpty-Dumpty together again. The sheer weight of the catastrophe has ground up countless young idealists like the film's focal character, Christian, but we keep trying. Why? Why not give in to despair and accept the hollow and vicious pornified world of Ziedler's entertainment empire? As the diminutive Henri tells Christian in the film: "Christian, you may see me only as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being." That is the cry of the modern world; we may be broken and empty, but we keep striving because we know that Beauty and Love are out there if only because our need for them. This follows one of C.S. Lewis' arguments: if there is hunger, there must be food, if there is thirst, there must be drink, if their is a craving in us for something which the world cannot satisfy, there must be something beyond the world which can satisfy it.
"Moulin Rouge" is a film of pieces, little colored bits of glass all patched together, but the picture they form is the soul of Western Man.