“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn; is just to love, and be loved in return.” This is a quote from the song Nature Boy written by Eden Ahbez and made famous by Nat King Cole in 1948. This single line from the composition is the central theme in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, surrounded by a myriad of ideals about love, freedom of expression; an homage to the first days of film and even a rekindling of an old American past time-the musical.
What makes the line from Nature Boy such a central theme is that the quote-slightly paraphrased in the film-is said numerous times throughout the movie. We first hear it in the very beginning of the film as a kind of introduction to the story as Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo) sings; “There was a boy. A very strange, enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far. Very far, over land and sea. A little shy and sad of eye, but very wise was he. And then one day, he passed my way. While he spoke of many things, fools and kings; this he said to me, ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’” as if summarizing the events about to unfold before our eyes in an explosion of music, singing, color, comedy, drama and tragedy. At the same time the last sentence is spoken by Christian (Ewan McGregor), a central character in the story as he types the very words we hear. It is here we learn that the story of Moulin Rouge is his story and the prophetic sentence his message to us.
The sentence is repeated again by Christian, as he explains his idea for a play to the group of Bohemians who recruit him to replace their writer. Thereby supporting the previous affirmation and its importance to the story. The third and final recitation of the chorus to Nature Boy comes at the end as a curtain- not unlike the ones found in old 1900’s theaters and the very same one which opens as the title credits roll-closes over the final shot of the film. For the viewer, this creates the sense of closing a book, as if we had just read Christians story and are about to return it to the shelf.
The very act of repeating this theme three times emphasizes its importance and centrality to the story of Moulin Rouge. However, emphasis may not necessarily be Luhrmann’s goal. Instead, the director wants the audience to remember; above all other themes and messages within Moulin Rouge, this one particular phrase. Hence, it is thrice conveyed to us.
Why this single phrase? Why this one in particular? Perhaps there lies an answer within the body of the film and in how it is told to us. Luhrmann does not simply present an age old love story, though in many ways Moulin Rouge is just that. A love story.
Consider this. Christian falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman) at first sight and she with him. There love is strong and unwavering it seems. At least until the Duke (Richard Roxburg) sinks his teeth into Satine. As the story goes forth, Satine breaks Christians heart, claiming to love the Duke because of the security he can provide her with his riches. By the end, the Duke turns out to be filled with lust and desire rather than love, treating Satine as something to be possessed and she goes back to Christian. Thus, we have what appears to be the classic boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back formula, but this is not so. Moulin Rouge is not a story about romance and finding the love of your life. It is a story about love itself. Its power. Its endurability. Its risks.
When we take into account the numerous anthems of love infused into this hyper active spectacular, spectacular musical unlike any before it or since, we can truly see the tapestry being woven before us. Not unlike a quilt, Luhrmann patches together the best bits of some very famous songs to tell the story of Moulin Rouge and does it well enough that the songs become part of the narrative itself.
When Christian first realizes his feelings, he woos Satine by serenading her with Elton John’s “Your Song”. Later he convinces her of his love with such anthems as “All You Need is Love”, “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong”, “In The Name of Love” and even “I Will Always Love You”. As much as she resists, Satine soon comes to realize how wonderful life is now that Christian is in the world.
As Christian accompanies the Bohemians to the Moulin Rouge for his meeting with Satine, songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend” and “Material Girl” serve as part of the entertainment at the…Cabaret burlesque show. Likewise, the lyrics to Queen’s “Show Must Go On” are a poignant sentiment to the feelings of Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and Satine as both succumb to the wishes and dominance of the Duke. Never the less the purpose of these anecdotes is only to push the narrative forward if only to enhance its theatricality.
Surely one can lose themselves in the attempt to name every popular song used in the film, but that would quickly become a distraction from the true meaning and message that makes a film like Moulin Rouge even remotely relatable. The message of love and what love must sometimes endure before gaining absolution. As if love needed such a thing as to be absolved.
In a sense, Christian is the embodiment of love. It gives him energy, drive, it comes easily to him. Perhaps naively so. After all, it is Christian’s relentless devotion to the power and promise of love that causes him to persuade Satine to rethink her aversion to the idea of being in love, because of its absence in her own life. Here is love at her doorstep and her instinct is to push it away, except that she has never really known love and as much as she’d like to, she cannot deny her need to have it in her life.
Perhaps Satine’s realization that her existence has been bereft of love is what drives her into Christian’s arms and to cherish him so completely, she is even willing to betray him to save him. Yet love-Christian-never wavers. Staying by her side in spite of the Duke. Vying for her right to be happy, to have joy, to have love. Even when Christian finally reaches his breaking point and confronts her, thanking her for curing him of his “…ridiculous obsession with love.” Satine then realizes that the only reason Christian’s heart broke so utterly, is because he loves her body and soul and that her own heart is breaking on the inside, because she truly loves him and she may have lost him forever. Precisely at this moment, when we believe all hope is lost; is when we are reminded that “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”
For all its theatricality, raucous pomp and comedic bravado, Moulin Rouge is now a classic film of the post-modern era and in spite of its hodgepodge of pop culture romanticism, the films message that love endures all things; even time and tragedy, is not missed by the audience. It stands as a resonant beacon for that timeless of all emotions-love.