March 13, 2012 at 10:56 A.M.
The movie, named after the famed cabaret where it was set, presents to its viewers the story of the poor English poet Christian and the “Sparkling Diamond” of the Moulin Rouge Satin as they pursue after their dreams and their love. In its own musical, indulgent and extravagant way, the film shows the spirit that the Moulin Rouge embodied. It was the place for the rich to be surrounded by mirrors and loose women as they danced together on the massive dance floor.
It opened its doors on October 6, 1889 at the foot of Butte Montmartre under the management of Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. The latter being the inspiration for a character in the movie itself. The very owners of the place called it “Le Premier Palais des Femmes” or “The First Palace of Women” with the beautiful Chahuteuses or can-can dancers scantily clad as they showed their flexibility and energy. A famous painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, even immortalized a scene from this very place in his painting entitled La Goulue.
Its name when translated to English is “Red Mill” which is one of the main features found on its very façade which was designed by Adolphe Willette. The use of the windmill originates in the history of the hill on which it was built upon. In the past, Montmartre was dotted with windmills for flour but also served as dance halls.
Other than the red mill, it also featured a gothic tower and a garden with an elephant. The wooden elephant was added in 1900 for the Exhibition Universelle. It served as a location for the male patrons to enjoy as belly dancers performed on a stage put inside the creature’s stomach. The inside of the elephant was supposedly decorated with arabesque décor and was possibly Indian-inspired in theme due to the type of dances shown inside. This feature was scrapped when it was later rebuilt. The gothic tower to the left of the façade was also supposed to serve a purpose similar to the elephant’s. It was thought of as a place where wealthy clientele would be able to use the Moulin Rouge’s brothel services. The architectural style of the tower is one that was commonly used during the 19th century. It used Gothic Revival with its pointed arch windows and the use of quatrefoils.
Now, the reason why the Moulin Rouge became so popular even on its first night was not only because it had such extravagant features, but also because these very features were brightened up with light bulbs. Charles Zidler loved electricity and made the Moulin Rouge shine in the darkness of the night by being one of the first parts of the district to have electricity. The fact that the windmill’s sails actually turned as it lighted up definitely served as one of the eye catchers for 19th century party-goers.
As mentioned earlier, the interior’s dance hall was full of mirrors. Now it is a theater with a stage for the renowned displays of the dancers for guests to watch as they dine. Inside they have Morris columns which were probably used in the past to advertise and now as a way to display the various shows that were once held in the cabaret by many known artists and performers.
I’ve said earlier that the movie seems to capture the spirit of the Moulin Rouge during the 19th century. Even from the opening of the movie, it showed just the conditions into which the Moulin Rouge managed to rise up from. Dark alleys, shady characters and dingy looking buildings that provided the perfect backdrop for the wealthy and aristocratic to slip into the night and join with the underground life of the less fortunate Parisians despite the irony of being on the highest point in Paris. It was set during a time when the boundaries between social classes blurred a wealthy duke could indulge in using his money and time to fund the transformation of an ill-reputed establishment to an actual theater where the star is one of the most sought after courtesans. The insanity, glamour, humor and tragedy in the movie reflected that of the Moulin Rouge. From the gothic tower to the giant (and almost ridiculous) elephant in the garden shows an odd shift in mood, the architecture and design makes it obvious that this place was a bit of a mad house with people letting their more carnal desires have free reign over their actions. The Moulin Rouge is not only historic due to the events that occurred in it, but also because of how it recorded the 19th century Paris, and specifically Montmartre, through its architectural design.
1. Meakin, A. Moulin Rouge: History Behind Pigalle’s Red Cabaret. http://www.bonjourparis.com/story/moulin-rouge-history-pigalle-cabaret/
2. Moulin Rouge Official Site. http://www.moulinrouge.fr/index_gb.php#
3. Rohan, A. History of the Moulin Rouge Cabaret. http://www.parissweethome.com/parisrentals/art_uk.php?id=91
4. Martin, C. Behind The Red Velvet Curtain Commentary. Moulin Rouge! DVD Special Feature