A night at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris’ red-light district Pigalle is a must-do experience for many visitors to Paris, if the long lines on Boulevard Clichy every night are any indication. This wasn’t our first trip to Paris, yet it was the first trip we’d actually considered seeing the risqué spectacle at the Moulin Rouge. Why?
The postcards of Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, which we’d see on stands as we walked through Montmartre every day, were partly the motivation. I was curious to see if there was any resemblance between the artist’s marvellous paintings and the modern show.
The “Red Mill”
On a stroll around Montmartre, local artist Marie Theres described the first cabarets held in tents Toulouse Lautrec had painted in the leafy gardens of the old mills that once dotted the hill of Montmartre – Moulin Rouge means ‘red mill’ – and this captured my imagination. The Moulin Rouge had played a pivotal role in the story of the neighbourhood, so it made sense to experience it. And, aren’t you curious too?
Opened in 1889 by Joseph Oller, the Moulin Rouge is known as the birthplace of the cancan, the exuberant dance where rows of healthy-looking girls in petticoats scream and shriek and vigorously kick their legs high into the air. One of my biggest disappointments with the current show, ‘Feerie’, was that the cancan made only a brief appearance and not until the very end.
For the most part, the show could be summarised as some kind of kitsch cross between French Cabaret, early Burlesque, a Vegas extravaganza, and a Eurovision contest, shifting between surprisingly brilliant (the juggler, the puppeteer, and the ventriloquist), astonishingly bad (the pirate dancers, snake woman, gay Musketeers, and ‘boogie woogie’ routine), a cute kind of weird (the Shetland ponies act), and just plain weird (the topless clowns, which were more eerie than Feerie. What is it about clowns?)
So, would I recommend it?
Well, it is expensive. But it’s definitely fun if you pretend you haven’t seen a musical since 1985. The women are gorgeous, their bodies are beautiful, and the costumes are fabulous (my favourite bit!), but the show is dated and desperately needs a revamp, and it’s still a show created for men – why else would there be scores of topless sexy women and a dozen gay men parading about all night?
If you’re completists like us, staying in the area, who are keen to fully discover Montmartre, then you will probably enjoy the experience, as there’s still plenty turn-of-the-century France in the kitsch décor, cabaret atmosphere, and nostalgia-value – after all, Ã‰dith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra all performed here at some stage.
If you loved Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film version of Moulin Rouge, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor you will probably be very disappointed as the real Moulin Rouge is nothing like that depicted in the film – but nor was it ever. Having said all that, each show runs for around ten to twelve years so they’re about due for a change. If they had any sense they’d be hiring Baz to produce the thing!