Awakening Love: Christian’s Descent into the Underworld in Moulin Rouge!

by Jonathan English

Twenty years ago now, Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant cinematic marvel, Moulin Rouge!, blazed across the silver screen. It would go on to receive eight Oscar nominations. Still, many critics seem to overlook its depths, bedazzled and almost blinded to deeper meaning by the film’s surface splendor, fast-paced brilliance, and abundant musical allusion.[1] For example, it’s been described as “all empty excess,”[2] an “accomplishment . . . of style rather than substance,”[3] and “hardly what I’d call serious fare . . . part pop-culture wasteland.”[4]

Yet in revisiting Christian’s journey to the underworld of the Moulin Rouge, one may awaken to unexplored depths and to the essential evangelion of eternal love embodied in the film. For, as Baz Luhrmann has said, his vision in Moulin Rouge! was to create a heightened cinematic form “where the audience participate, where they are awakened.”[5]

The story begins in 1899, on the eve of a new century. Christian (Ewan McGregor), a penniless writer, journeys to the underworld (it’s literally called an “underworld”) of the Moulin Rouge dance hall in Paris. He’s warned against his journey at least twice. The Moulin Rouge is called a bordello, a place of sin, a place to be judged. But like his namesake, he is undeterred. Upon arriving in Montmartre in Paris, he immediately joins (or is joined by) a bohemian acting troupe dedicated to the ideals of the bohemian revolution—truth, beauty, freedom, and love. Asked if he believes in this creed, he embraces it wholeheartedly, adding further, “Above all things I believe in love.”[6]

Thus, Christian’s name, his creed, his community,[7] and his descent to the underworld, all evoke and parallel the biblical account of Christ.[8] In that account, Christ descends from heaven to earth out of love. Moreover, as readers may recall, in the Apostles’ Creed it’s said that after his crucifixion, Christ descended to the dead or to hell, to share good news of Eternal love there.[9] In addition, in every gospel, Christ is compared to a Lover—in love with the whole world, all of humanity—who sacrificially descends to the depths to rescue the beloved. As will be seen, Christian’s journey follows Christ’s, with transformative results.

As the story continues, the bohemian actors’ musical within the musical (Spectacular, Spectacular) and their mission of truth, beauty, freedom, and love carry Christian into the Moulin Rouge where they kindle—in the midst of a crass and jaded and materialistic and transactional society (though one still visited by grace and friendship)—an unexpected faith in love. A love that’s real rather than transactional. More specifically, after a Shakespearean case of mistaken identity, Christian falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), the chief courtesan of the Moulin Rouge.

Satine does not even believe in the reality of love, at first, seeing it as only transactional. In her opening song, after all, she asserts, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” But this changes, as Christian’s faith and feeling is imparted to Satine. Like Orpheus in his journey to the underworld, his music moves those who listen. Like Christ—the “Logos,” the Word of God—who descends to the depths out of love, Christian’s words transmit transformative power and love.

The sacrificial, life-giving nature of Christian’s love shines through as, in one instance, he offers to give up his musical entirely to rescue Satine fully by fleeing with her from the Moulin Rouge. By this point in the story, in one of the only entirely original songs of the movie (accentuating authenticity), they have promised to love one another “till the end of time.” As becomes evident, bohemian freedom is not unbounded, it is bounded by love, the supreme virtue.

Still, Satine is not undivided, as she is promised, bodily, to the Duke (Richard Roxburgh), the financier of the new musical Spectacular, Spectacular. Her heart may choose Christian, but other forces may entrap her with the Duke. This conflict, in turn, threatens to derail Christian with jealousy and, ultimately, with loss of faith in the reality of love.

But throughout, the movie repeats the words—truth, beauty, freedom, and love—as a beautiful, didactic, haunting refrain, almost as a lullaby to a forgetful child. As one example, though the Duke dismisses the ideals as mere “dogma”, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) earnestly insists on an ending consistent with the bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love, ideals which would be betrayed if the Courtesan chooses the evil Maharajah in the musical, rather than the penniless sitar player. Indeed, he pleads, as though with a childlike faith, for a happy, true, beautiful ending. And as the end approaches, Satine becomes like a martyr as she denies the Duke’s advances—because of her love for Christian—willing now to sacrifice her dream of becoming a true stage actress rather than only a nightclub dancer/courtesan.

Still, as the plot unwinds, the show must go on. The climactic performance of the musical within the movie unfolds as though it’s being rewritten as we watch, with fatal foreboding, as the fourth wall of the musical is breached, and outside forces and characters interact in explosive, seemingly unpredictable ways, delivering surprising drama. Till, when all appears beyond hope, the kindly, lovable, wounded fool figure, Toulouse, tumbles from the heavens, as though a deus ex machina, to deliver the catalytic words pronounced earlier in the film—“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.” And so the characters come to their senses, and remember their promise, and act.

Ultimately, Christian’s journey to the Moulin Rouge brings redemption rather than judgment, inspiring love. Along the way, the story provides needed reminders of transcendental truths and of the inspiring potential of love in place of judgment. Here, incidentally, art is not supreme. Art is not just for art’s sake, as in the competing fin de siècle short-lived vision of Oscar Wilde (and others) at the time.[10] Rather, according to the specific bohemian vision of Moulin Rouge!, art expresses, exists for, and may be given up for, love.[11]

The film is bold and beautiful, pounding out its themes at the end of the credits, as it reiterates:

“This film is about—




But above all . . .


So, too, in Satine’s last lines of the film, she commissions Christian to tell the story of their transcendent love, an affirmation of the good news of undying love. In this way (and others), the story differs from the Orpheus myth and corresponds more so with the gospel narrative. Orpheus ultimately loses faith—looking back as he leaves the underworld, fearful that Eurydice is not following—and because of his loss of faith he loses Eurydice to the underworld forever. It’s full-fledged hopeless tragedy. But in Moulin Rouge!, after Christian initially gives up faith (when she rejects him to protect him), in the end she gives it back to him. Following Christian’s example, her exercise of faith and love restores his own. Their vows are fulfilled. Faith, hope, and love endure.

It’s a triumphant ending in many ways. But not entirely a happy ending, despite the seeming simplicity of the bohemian dogma. Victories in this world are fleeting. After all, even Lazarus had to die again, after his initial resurrection. Nevertheless, as confirmed in Christian’s last lines in the film, the affirmation of love, of its value, its constraint, its joy, its eternal endurance, is uncompromised. Love never ends.[12]

[1] Indeed, the allusions and lyric quotations within the film are so extensive that it took the creators two years just to secure all the musical rights.

[2] David Edelstein, “Miracles Are Cheap,” Slate (May 19, 2001) (available at

[3] Todd McCarthy, “Moulin Rouge,” Variety (May 9, 2001) (available at

[4] Marc Savlov, “Moulin Rouge,” Austin Chronicle (June 1, 2001) (available at

[5] “Baz Luhrmann: The Moulin Rouge Hollywood Interview Flashback,” by Terry Keefe (available at 

[6] Again, one hears echoes of the gospels (see, e.g., Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31), as well as 1 Corinthians 13:13 (describing love as the greatest of virtues, in one of the most famous passages on love ever written).

[7] Assumptions are sometimes made about those called “bohemians”, and thus the bohemians in Moulin Rouge! are sometimes misunderstood as well. However, it’s important to observe how the film sets up distinct and competing bohemian definitions or dogmas. As elaborated in note 10 below, Christian and Toulouse articulate a transcendental, sacrificial, love-oriented vision and community. In contrast, Zidler and the Duke present a materialistic, sensual, transactional vision and community. Like Christ, Christian risks being (mis)judged and misunderstood because of his “eating and drinking” and associating with undesirables. See, e.g., Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34.

[8] Christian’s creed, his community, and his name all distinguish this narrative from the myth of Orpheus. So while comparisons have been made to the brief, bleak tragedy of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld (see, e.g., Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics, for a brief account of the mythic story), it’s surprising that critics have neglected the consequential hope-filled parallels and themes in the life of Christian’s namesake.

[9] See, e.g., 1 Peter 4:6 and Ephesians 4:9.

[10] This decadent, aesthetic, but ultimately despairing-of-meaning attitude finds expression in the character of Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the illusive, sometimes compassionate, sometimes ruthless god of the Moulin Rouge underworld. In his competing bohemian vision, love is illusion (or lust), counterfeit, a mask for self-interest, a thing to be bought and sold. And his reductive account of the “bohemian spirit” is decidedly non-transcendental, as he describes it as simply “erotic . . . thrusting, violent, vibrant, wild.” (But to be fair, in context, Zidler is speaking to the Duke at this moment, telling him what he believes he wants to hear.) Satine even tells Zidler at one point, “All my life you’ve made me believe that I was only worth what someone would pay for me. But Christian loves me.”

[11] One thinks of the memorable line from The Village, by M. Night Shyamalan: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe,” itself a paraphrase of lines in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

[12] 1 Corinthians 13:8.

Featured photograph credit: Donald McAlpine, Cinematographer (Oscar nominee); Catherine Martin, Brigitte Broch, Art Direction (Oscar winner); Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie, Costume Design (Oscar winner).