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‘Killing the author’ with reference to Moulin


Charlotte Buchan

CG Arts and Animation: Year 2


Phil Gomm

Contents Page

Introduction: Page 3
Main Body: Page 4-9
Conclusion: Page 10
Illustrations: Page 11
Bibliography: Page 12- 13

Killing the author’ with reference to Moulin Rouge


Post-modernism is a hard topic to define. Klages says this is because it does

not fit into any one category.

It is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study,

including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications,
fashion and technology. It is hard to locate it temporally and historically,
because it’s not clear exactly when postmodernism begins.
(Klages, 2006, 163).

This essay will analyse the film Moulin Rouge (2001). The film was released
in 2001 and was directed by Baz Luhrmann. This essay will explore how
Moulin Rouge depicts various aspects of postmodernism. Moulin Rouge is a
mixture of different postmodern themes; however its most dominant trait is the
idea of the Death of the Author by Roland Barthes. Death of the Author occurs
when the creator's original ideas are taken and re wrote in the way the viewer
wishes. This essay will also explain how subcategories such as
intertextuality, mash-up and cliché all relate to the Death of the Author. These
postmodern traits can be seen through its use of story, visuals and music.

Death of the Author was theorised in 1967 by Roland Barthes. He proclaimed
that 'anything in culture can be decoded'. (Appignanesi & Garratt 1995: 74).
Death of the Author is how audiences impose their own personal meanings
based on their cultural understanding, regardless of what the creator
intended. The author's original meaning when twisted in such a way makes it
invalid, thus the author is dead. This leaves the text, as in a film, a book, a
play etc., open to question because it is unstable and forever shifting. The
audience is left questioning what happens to the author as it leaves the
meaning open to reinterpretation. The same can be said about the examples.

These examples such as Death of the Author and the sub categories,
intertextuality, mash-up and cliché all display postmodern qualities, as
Barthes explains 'We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a
single 'theological' meaning (the 'message of the Author-God') but a
multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original,
blend and clash.' (Barthes, 1977, 146). He talks about the fact that all of the
categories clash and overlap in their meaning. Not only do they clash they all
have multiple truths. Butler also states that historians and scientists no longer
hold truth.

The basic attitude of Postmodernists was a scepticism about the

claims of any kind of overall totalizing explanation...This heralded a
pluralist age, in which as we shall see even arguments of scientists
and historians are to be seen no more than quasi narratives which
compete with all others for acceptance.
(Butler, 2002, 15).

'It is a hydra-headed, decentred condition in which we get dragged along from

pillar to post across a succession of reflecting surfaces, drawn by the call of
the wild signifier.' (Rose, 1996, 4) Margret Rose quotes Hebdige's theory,
saying that the age of postmodernism is therefore not defined by any single
truth. When one delves further into the subject, more questions than answers
arise. Like the hydra, when its head is cut off, more grow back. It is a
continuous cycle with no end. Death of the Author is an example of this theory

because the text which would be viewed is open to numerous truths. This
view is also helped along by the film's video and music editing.

In addition to this, according to Bathes 'The film takes its own editing style
largely from music videos, epitomizing the use of postmodern editing
techniques.'(Booker, 2007, 58). Booker talks about how the film 'kills the
author' by taking music from other cultures and mixes them together to tell the
story. The film consists of famous songs such as 'Roxanne', 'Like a Virgin' and
'The Can Can' and are all revamped with different lyrics as well as different
pitch in tune in some places. This gives it an eclectic mixture of cultural

The Moulin Rouge (2001) is a mixture of cultural elements. It has an

Australian production team and crew as well as actors from the UK and
around the world. The film consists of pop songs from America as well as
Britain. All of which combine to make eclectic mix set in Paris.

The Bollywood-inspired show-within-a-show, numerous anachronisms that

refuse to stay confined within the specified time setting of the late nineteenth
century – disrupt the Classical ideals of artistic unity and integrity and suggest
new postmodern geographies and temporalities.
(Yang, 2010)

Figure 1 shows a screen shot

from the film. In the
background is the building of
the Moulin Rouge, shining
brightly amongst the dull
buildings. One of the main
characters, Harold Zidler is in
Figure 1, Moulin Rouge (2001), Screen
the foreground. This shot shows the old shot of the streets of Paris and the Moulin
fashioned Parisian background for
where the film is set.

Moulin Rouge is postmodern due to all the different themes from which it is
constructed, as noted by Jencks 'postmodernism is fundamentally the eclectic
mixture of any traditions with that of the immediate past.' (Jencks, 1989, 7).
The film consists of many themes, such as romance, music and Greek myths.
Peter French in his review for the Observer(2001) agrees that the Moulin
Rouge is postmodern. ‘It's been called 'postmodernist' in the way it compacts
numerous contrasting styles and disparate strands, in the manner of a
garbage machine crushing everything it receives into a neat package.’
(French, 2001.)

The name of the film has also been appropriated from 'John Huston's 1952
film also titled Moulin Rouge’, which ‘focuses on Toulouse-Lautrec as central
character. Here, the diminutive painter is presented somewhat more
realistically, though his presentation is still strongly tinted with Hollywood
cliché' (Booker, 2007, 200).

Figure 1 consists of a couple on a bed kissing. The

couple are on a bed with red covering, in what
appears to be a brown coloured room. The
painting is similar to the scene in Moulin Rouge
where Satine pulls the Duke onto the bed to

Figure 2: Henri de Toulouse-

distract him from spotting Christian as seen in
Lautrec, The Kiss, (1892),
Cardboard, 39 x 58 cm., Private
Figure 2. Colour themes are similar as well as the
pose. In both images the figures are lying on a
bed, kissing. Another similarity is the fact
that in both images one figure is wearing
a lot of clothes where as the other is
wearing less. However, one contrasting
element is in the characters' use of Figure 3, Moulin Rouge (2001), Screen shot
of Satine distracting the Duke by kissing him.
clothing; they appear to be dressed in an
opposite way. This is an example of postmodern intertextuality because of
how the film has taken an existing painting and applied the style and colours
to the film. This postmodern theme is also applied to the characters of the

Not only is the set based upon Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings
but the characters are also a replica of his models. Figure 3
shows Lautrec's painting of William Warrener, a gentleman at
the Moulin Rouge. Warrener is portrayed, wearing a top hat,
a moustache and very short hair. The character Harold Zidler
seen in figure 4 is based
heavily on Warrener's
Figure 3: Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec, appearance. Harold is seen at
William Warrener (Study
for The Englishman at some point in the film, wearing
the Moulin Rouge).,
(1892), a top hat. Also his hair is
similar in style to Warrener's,
shortly cut style. Both have a moustache and Figure 5, Moulin Rouge (2001),
Screen shot of Harold and co singing
wear a cheerful expression. Spectacular, Spectacular.

In addition to the 1880's Post Impressionistic influences, Moulin Rouge (2001)

also uses other past texts. The story of Orphean is about a man who
descended to the underworld to bring his true love back to life. Hades makes
a deal with him, allowing him to have his wife back so long as he does not
look at her until they reach the Earth's surface. Upon spotting the sunshine,
Orphean turns to share his joy with his love, only for her to return to the
underworld. The narrative of Moulin Rouge may be considered to originate
from the Greek myth of Orphean. He was a young artiste who journeyed to
the underworld in search of romance. Satine, the star of the film and the main
courtesan at the Moulin Rouge is tied between choosing the love of Christian
and The Duke. (Urban, 2001). It maybe suggested that the film combines 'old-
style Hollywood glamour, Orphean myth and boulevard farce, "Moulin Rouge
(2001)" tells the story of … a doomed romance.' (Smith, 2001). This gives
room for the film to be filled with clichés.

The film Moulin Rouge is considered to be a film full of clichés (Booker, 2007,
59). According to French,

They're loving assemblages of conventions and clichés from musicals of the past,
produced with a sort of aggressive brio that makes the audience feel as if they 're
being targeted by a squadron of kamikaze bombers loaded with sugary
(French, 2001).

What French is suggesting is that the music from the film has been taken and
then reassembled to create a different meaning. French also quotes that
'although the Moulin Rouge is filmed in Paris, a city renowned for romance
the Moulin Rouge is set in the Paris of 1899 in and around the eponymous
nightclub, but it's shot entirely on Australian sound stages’. He feels that the
film takes a cultural feel from a different place. The film is also considered to
be kitsch. According to Matthew Turner (2001) 'the high levels of kitsch on
display would seem to indicate that its status as a future camp classic'
(Turner, 2001). This sets the film into the category of Society of the Spectacle.

Society of the Spectacle is a postmodern theory discovered by Guy Debord in


But for the present age which prefers the signs to the thing signified, the copy to the
original, representation to reality, appearance to essence...truth is considered
profane, and only the illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in
proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of
illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
(Debord, 1983).

Debored talks about how modern day society prefers false illusions to reality.
The original is the most important and yet society prefers to hold the copy as
more important. Moulin Rouge relates to the spectacle as Kellner concludes
'Moulin Rouge , a film that itself is a delirious ode to spectacle, from cabaret
and the brothel, to can-can dancing, opera, musical, comedy, dance, theatre,
popular music, and film. A postmodern pastiche of popular music styles and
hits.' (Kellner, 2003, 6). Kellner suggests that the audience is so wrapped up

in the false illusion of the past in which the film is based that they forget where
the film takes its sources.


Moulin Rouge! Does, however, reflect on rather than merely reflect

modernity and its cultures. It does this in aesthetic terms that are
usually defined as Postmodern. Jim McGuigon offers a concise
definition of the utopian Postmodern aesthetic as 'a pervasive pick-n-
mix and commodified culture in which modern boundaries between
forms, media and spheres of social activity are crossed... and
dissolved (Mayer,2007,206).

Geoff Mayer states that Moulin Rouge (2001) is considered a postmodern film
because of how it consists of different genres and mashes them up. The most
dominant theme within the film is Death of the Author. However,
intertextuality, mash-up and cliché are all sub categories, which relate to the
Death of the Author. One might suggest that in this eclectic mix of diversity
Moulin Rough has successfully ‘killed the author’ and the viewer has prevailed
to interpret the film in their own way. This is seen through how the film's
different texts which range from music, setting and character appearance.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1, Moulin Rouge (2001), Screen shot of the streets of Paris and the
Moulin Rouge.

Figure 2: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Kiss, (1892), Cardboard, 39 x 58

cm., Private collection.
(Accessed 19/10/10)

Figure 3, Moulin Rouge (2001), Screen shot of Satine distracting the Duke by
kissing him.
(Accessed 6/12/10)

Figure 4: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, William Warrener (Study for The

Englishman at the Moulin Rouge)., (1892), Cardboard, 57.3 x 45.3 cm.,
Private collection.
(Accessed 19/10/10)

Figure 5, Moulin Rouge (2001), Screen shot of Harold and co singing

Spectacular, Spectacular.
(Accessed 6/12/10)


Appignanesi & Garratt., (1995). Postmodernism for Beginners, Cambridge:

Icon Books LTD

Barthes, R., (1977), Image-Music-Text, trans. Heath, S., United Stated of


Booker, M., (2006). Postmodernism Hollywood: What's New in Film and why
it Makes Us Feel So Strange, Westport: Praeger Publishers

Butler, C., (2002). Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction, Cornwall: TJ


Debord, G., (1983). Society of the Spectacle, London: Rebel Press

Elements of Art/Design: Colour Schemes, (2003)
(Accessed 19/11/10)
French, P., (2001). Review of Moulin Rouge for the Observer
(Accessed 19/11/10)

Jencks, C., (1989). What is Post-Modernism, London: Academy Editions.

London: Wallflower Press

Kellner, D., (2003). Media spectacle, Perth: Prepress Projects LTD

Klages, M., (2006). Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, London:
Continuum International Publishing Group.

Margaret A. R., (2002). The post-modern and the post-industrial: a critical

analysis, Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge

Mayer, G., (2007). The cinema of Australia and New Zealand,

Ramer, J., (2004). Postmodernism and (Post) Feminist Boredom
(Accessed 26/10/10)

Smith, N., (2001). Review of Moulin Rouge, for the BBC
(Accessed 5/11/10)

The Guardian., (2001)
(Accessed 26/10/10)

Time Out Film Guide , (2010)

(Accessed 26/10/10)
Turner, M., (2001). The ViewLondon Review of Moulin Rouge (2001)
(Accessed 29/11/10)

Urban, A., (2001). Review of Moulin Rouge, for Film Festivals
(Accessed 12/11/10)

Yang, M., (2010). Moulin Rouge and the Undoing of Opera
(Accessed 29/11/10)


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