It seems a night getting your kicks at the Moulin Rouge in Paris’ red-light district, Pigalle, is a must-do experience for many of you visiting Paris if the nightly long lines on Boulevard Clichy are any indication. This certainly wasn’t our first trip to Paris – we’d been visiting since 1999 and even wrote a guidebook to Paris for Lonely Planet – yet it was the first trip we’d actually considered going to the Moulin Rouge.
Why? Well, the postcards of Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings of the Moulin Rouge, which we’d see on stands as we walked through Montmartre every day, fascinated me. I was curious to see if there was any resemblance between Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge and the modern-day spectacle. On our 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’). It captured my imagination.
The Moulin Rouge had played a pivotal role in the history of the neighbourhood, at various times considered bohemian, fashionable, tacky, and touristy… and now? I wondered if the Moulin Rouge might have actually become hip again since burlesque had taken the world by storm, and seeing we’re on a quest to get under the skin of the places we’re visiting, it made sense to see a show. Admit it, you’re curious too.
Opened in 1889 by Joseph Oller, the Moulin Rouge is regarded as the birthplace of the French 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 end.
For the most part, the risqué revue was a kitsch cross between French cabaret, early burlesque, a Las Vegas extravaganza, and the Eurovision song contest, shifting between surprisingly brilliant (the juggler, puppeteer, and 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 that makes them so scary?).
The show is 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. However, there’s lots of synchronized strutting about the stage in little else but feathers and sequins, the songs are cringe-worthy, and the show is dated and desperately needs a revamp. And despite the burlesque craze, the Moulin Rouge is less about satire and more about skin. Essentially, with its topless girls and fey dancers, it’s still a show aimed squarely at men.
Would I recommend a night at the Moulin Rouge? Well, it depends. It is expensive and spending 150-180 euros per person on a dinner show is not a decision most people take lightly. We went, as guests of the Moulin Rouge, to the 11pm champagne show which costs 92 euros and includes half a bottle of champagne.
If you enjoy a spectacle with a bit of Busby Berkley-inspired choreography, you’re completists, you’re staying in Montmartre-Pigalle, and you’re keen to experience all the area offers, then you’ll probably get a kick out of it. There’s still plenty turn-of-the-century France in the retro décor, a dimly-lit cabaret atmosphere, and loads of nostalgia-value – after all, Édith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Liza Minnelli, and Frank Sinatra all performed here.
However, if you loved Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, you’ll probably be disappointed that the real Moulin Rouge is nothing like the one depicted in the film. Nor was it ever. It’s nothing like Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge either. There’s hope, however: each show runs for around 10-12 years so it’s time for a change. If the organizers have any sense they’ll be hiring Baz to produce the next new show.