Anything Goes at the Moulin Rouge
Who wants to meet the green fairy?
I swore to myself I would never tell this story, but I once knew a girl who wrote an entire blog post about visiting Paris & the Moulin Rouge, and for the ENTIRE post she spelled it “Mulan Rouge.” MULAN! The correct spelling is in gigantic letters on the front of the venue. I just–
Anyway, certain movies are “comfort movies,” movies that you can watch over and over again, that you can put on in the background while you’re cleaning your room or doing a puzzle. It’s usually a movie that you watched in your adolescence that made an impact. The best comfort movies are often musicals. Mine is the 1996 version of Evita starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. My mom’s is The Sound of Music. And my sister's comfort movie is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!
She watched it every morning getting ready for school. She played the soundtrack all the time. Watching a comfort movie is like being wrapped in a bear hug. It’s a movie that says “Life is stressful but you’ll always have this fake little world to come back to after you go to Trader Joe’s.” Get yourself a comfort movie.
In an ode to Moulin Rouge!, this newsletter is dedicated to the fin de siecles, a vibrant, bohemian period of time in Paris that celebrated art, music, beauty, and free love. This newsletter has recommendations to go along with a viewing of Moulin Rouge!, including a classic French food, a deep-dive into the man behind the madness, and a couple of strong cocktails to transport you back in time to Paris circa 1900.
🎥 Watch: Moulin Rouge!
Moulin Rouge is polarizing. Some people hate it! That’s fine but I think everyone needs to see it at least once. The movie is a jukebox musical meaning that the songs are pop songs from various decades performed by well-known artists like David Bowie and Beck. A post-Tom Cruise divorce Nicole Kidman is luminous as Satine, a courtesan, and the star of the Moulin Rouge’s nightly performances. Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a poor English writer who travels to Paris to finish his play and falls in love with Satine. It’s chaotic and loud, with funky sound effects, karaoke-worthy music numbers, and outrageous costumes.
📚 Read: Gigi by Colette
I bought an old copy of Colette’s The Ripening Seed at a used bookstore based solely on its cover, which is my favorite way to buy books. I’m saving it to read during the summer because it's set on the coast of France but the purchase sparked an interest in the writer. Colette published her first four novels under her husband’s pen name, Willy, which were bestsellers in France at the time. Later, she had a stage career at the Moulin Rouge, embarked on a relationship with a transgender woman named Missy, and wrote several more books including Gigi, a novella about a courtesan falling in love with an older man.
Bonus: My favorite movie of 2018 was Colette, a biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West. Keira Knightley is doing her favorite thing which is being an opinionated woman wearing a corset in a period piece—highly recommend.
The Night Circus doesn’t exactly fit in with La Belle Époque but it is fantastically imaginative and set on a stage much like Moulin Rouge. Erin Morgensten creates a nighttime traveling circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, that features magical exhibits. The plot is a blossoming love story set amid impossible circumstances, again just like the movie.
🥐 Make: Crepes
Crepe > pancake > waffle. Sorry y’all, I don’t make the rules. The thinner, the better! Crepes are a staple of French street food and also very easy to make at home: they’re basically just milk, water, eggs, flour, and a sugary topping. Or make them savory for a little breakfast-for-dinner action. The trick is in the heat of the pan and making a circular motion when you pour in the batter. Let this delightful video compilation of Julia Child making crepes be your guide.
🥃 Drink: French 75
For such a hoity-toity cocktail—gin, champagne, lemon juice, and sugar—you’d never guess it would be named after a gun. But alas, the French 75, or a Soixante Quinze, is named after a high-powered 75 mm gun the French used in WWI, aptly named because apparently drinking one is like getting hit with one. The drink was made famous after being included in The Savoy Cocktail Book. It can be served in a flute or Collins glass.
Ahh, finally the part of the newsletter where I can start talking about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a disabled, alcoholic Post-Impressionist French painter and one of the few dead people I’d like to have a drink with. The story goes that he created this cocktail that is equal parts cognac and absinthe to serve at his parties.
Absinthe plays a significant role in Moulin Rouge! Often referred to as la fée verte, or “the green fairy,” it had a reputation as a mind-altering drink that caused hallucinations. (Hence the crew hallucinating Kylie Minogue as a little green fairy in Moulin Rouge!) Some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art depicted absinthe being consumed in daily life—his 1893 painting Monsieur Boileau at the Café shows a rather roly-poly man sitting in front of a cup of absinthe and a dozen matchbooks. Artsy’s Tommy Werner writes:
“While history shows us that absinthe had quite a few consequences in Parisian society (and Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from alcoholism throughout his adult life), in this painting, Boileau displays the kind of reckless abandon that fueled a remarkable time to be an artist in France. Boileau’s dazed grin and half-closed eyes dare us to have a better time than he’s having.”
The spirit was banned in the US in 1915 but an absinthe revival in the 1990s has brought it back. This tidbit is crazy: “The French were drinking a whopping 36 million liters of absinthe per year by 1910 rivaling their almost 5 billion liters consumption of wine.” The French need Jesus!
⌛ Longread: Deep Inside Baz Luhrmann’s Creative Chaos
Baz Luhrmann seems like a lot of work. His chaotic energy leaps off the page of this New York Times Magazine article. The Australian director of Moulin Rouge! also directed Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. So many things stick out to me here: 1) Luhrmann says his movies have a “gay sensibility”—yes. 2) Marriage advice includes sleeping in separate bedrooms—yes. 3) Taking work meetings while in bed pantsless surrounded by his team members—NO 4) This quote:
“Midway across the Williamsburg Bridge, headed toward Brooklyn, Luhrmann told me: “Romance doesn’t just mean love or lovers. A creative adventure can be a lover. Walking in New York City on this bridge can be a lover. I might like red wine, and I’ve certainly tried every drug and done just about everything, I guess. But the romance addiction, for me, if it’s not fatal, it’s up there.”
A bit more on Toulouse-Lautrec: he was a major player in the artistic movement in Montmartre during the turn of the century in Paris. He had a genetic disorder—likely caused by inbreeding— that caused him to stop growing; he was 5ft tall in adulthood. Many of his most popular paintings are very recognizable like La Toilette (Rousse) and In Bed, The Kiss. He was asked to design the posters for the Moulin Rouge when it opened, befriended a can-can dancer named Avril, and later went on to use the dancers and sex workers at the venue in many of his paintings. He died of syphilis and alcoholism at the age of 36. In 2005, one of his paintings, La Blanchisseuse, sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking $22.4 million.
📅 Throwback: Lady Marmalade by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, & P!nk
To help promote the movie in 2001, an all-star ensemble of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and P!nk recorded a cover of Lady Marmalade, a song originally made famous by Patti LaBelle. (The original 1974 lyrics actually say “He met Marmalade down in old New Orleans.”)
I was obsessed with this song when this came out. I was eight years old so I had questions: Why is this song about a lady making jam? Who is Joe? Is gitchie gitchie even English? I walked around belting out Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?, at which point my parents were like ok, stop. The music video is peak early aughts. I love it.