Autonomy and consent in “Moulin Rouge!”

“Moulin Rouge!” is the doomed love story between a glamorous Parisian courtesan and a poor bohemian writer, wrapped up in a dazzling, campy jukebox musical. The 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, which inspired a Broadway adaptation in 2018, proclaims to be simply “a story about love,” but closer analysis raises questions surrounding women’s autonomy and consent. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the idealistic playwright Christian pitches his play to a posh cabaret, where he first sets eyes on the showgirl Satine. He instantly falls in love with her, and they tumble into a whirlwind love affair. However, Satine needs to seduce the wicked Duke of Monroth so he will fund her dream of becoming a professional actress. When the duke finds out, Satine calls off the relationship to protect Christian from the duke’s wrath. Christian demands an explanation until Satine admits that she still loves him, but she dies of tuberculosis before they can run away together. 

Although it’s easy to dismiss “Moulin Rouge!” as a melodramatic musical romance, Satine and Christian’s relationship expertly explores sexual politics. As a famous courtesan, Satine’s multiple sexual partners provide her with greater financial independence than most women in her time. Many women had to marry into financial stability, binding themselves to one man for life, even if their husbands were violent, cruel or financially irresponsible, and working-class women often toiled in factories under unsafe working conditions. Satine still sometimes defers to her glorified pimp Zidler, but she enjoys far more freedom than married women because she can rely on multiple patrons rather than one husband. She does not need a husband to survive. 

When Christian first meets Satine, he is a hopeless romantic with no money. After a few interactions with her, he tries to seduce her, but she refuses to sleep with him for free because all her sexual relationships are transactional rather than romantic. He then tries to convince her that a life without love is worse than a life without financial security. For Christian, this perspective might be true because men were afforded many ways to earn a living. But for Satine, requiring payment for sex is one of the few ways she is allowed to make money. Furthermore, Christian is already poor, so he can speak about sacrificing money for love because he has nothing to lose. Satine, on the other hand, would be giving up her stable life for a handsome but penniless man she met only a few days ago. 

Since Christian cannot provide for Satine financially, Satine decides to sleep with him for free as long as she can still collect payment from the duke. He initially agrees to the plan, but when she visits the duke for the first time, Christian flies into a jealous rage, even though her relationship with the duke is strictly transactional. Although Christian knew Satine was a courtesan before he began flirting with her and consented to an open relationship, he believes she should give up all other sexual partners to prove her love for him – even if it leaves her destitute. 

Christian frames himself as the only man who does not objectify her, but his main goal is to obtain a monogamous sexual relationship with her. While he does enjoy her company in non-sexual settings, he decides he is in love with her before they have even spoken to each other and tries to seduce her after only a few conversations, so sexual attraction still forms the foundation of their relationship. He also holds problematic views on sex work despite claiming that he is in love with a sex worker. When his friend remarks that sex workers are untrustworthy and incapable of love, Christian does not correct him on Satine’s behalf; instead, he internalizes his friend’s beliefs and grows suspicious of Satine. When Christian is pleased with Satine, he ignores that she is a sex worker because her occupation does not fit into his romantic fantasy. But when he is angry with her, he channels his negative misconceptions about sex workers into his perception of her. 

At the beginning, Christian and the duke are presented as foils to each other, but Christian’s increasingly jealous, paranoid nature soon mirrors that of the duke. When the duke furiously realizes that Satine has been pretending to fancy him, she tries to run away and he throws her to the floor, where he attempts to rape her. In a chillingly similar scene later in the film, Christian storms into the theater and chases Satine around after they break up, demanding that she admits she still loves him. When she denies it, he shoves her onto her knees in front of the audience, calls her a whore and tells the duke that “this woman is yours now.” Christian lays his hands on her, degrades her and even offers her to the man who tried to rape her – all as a ruse to provoke her into admitting her feelings for him. 

While the film clearly portrays the duke as a repulsive, comedically evil villain, Christian’s toxicity is romanticized because he claims his actions are driven by his overwhelming love for Satine, rather than his fragile ego. His desire to make Satine give up her livelihood is seen as an assertion of love, his violent outburst towards her is framed as a romantic gesture and his jealous fit is set to a sensual tango. Furthermore, he uses his youth and good looks to back up his entitlement to Satine, because men who look like him don’t need to ask for consent. 

Despite their differing appearances and social classes, both Christian and the duke believe they have full claim to Satine’s body, demand an exclusive relationship that she cannot provide and harm her when she does not give them what they want. Satine’s death, while tragic, seems almost like the karma both men deserve – in the end, neither Christian nor the duke can have her. 

Although Christian’s perspective frames “Moulin Rouge!” as a love story, I see it as more of a dark coming-of-age story depicting the catastrophes that arise when autonomy and consent are violated. It is the harrowing tale of a woman seeking freedom and two men driven mad by their desire to possess her.