Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Love in the Movies: a beginning

Love. What the hell does that mean? I think it's safe to say that no one really, fully understands the concept of love. Allow me to rephrase: love is something too fluid a concept to nail down with a fixed definition. It's too complex to be able to put into one conveniently arranged sentence. It's something that's felt, not quantified. Simply put, it's confusing as hell.
This, of course, has not stopped Hollywood from attempting to define it at every turn. I would hazard an estimate that at least 50% of films coming out today concern love in any of its various incarnations, mostly one of the 'big four' types as defined by the Greeks: Agape (sacrificial or romantic), Storge (familial), Philos (brotherly/friendly), and Eros (sexual). Sometimes more than one at a time. Sometimes all of them. Though that doesn't happen frequently, as incest is a decidedly taboo subject (I'm looking at you, Sweet Hereafter).
I don't think any movie can definitively say what love is. I do think, however, that if we put enough of these movie ideas together, we can create an interesting, richly detailed mosaic that attempts to showcase some of the many facets of that trickiest emotion. So, here begins what I hope will become a recurring series (though my other recurring series have yet to earn that adjective), in which I will attempt to take an analytical look at love (in any of its incarnations) in film.
To begin with? Moulin Rouge!.
(Note: I originally intended to write this about Hair, which has a wealth of ideas about this particular subject, but it occurred to me that none of my faithful readers have seen that movie. All of them, however, have seen and can claim some degree of familiarity with Moulin Rouge!, so I changed topics. This is for y'all. Go watch Hair.)

Moulin Rouge! is a great starting point for this series because it offers such a rich tapestry of all different types of love. I'm sure most of you thought of Christian and Satine upon hearing that Moulin Rouge! would be the subject of interest, but I think spending time with the supporting characters will be more enlightening. Yes, Christian and Satine are in love (or believe they are), yes, it ends in tragedy, and, as much as I love the movie, it's nothing we haven't seen before, and it's something I'm sure we'll see again. Star-crossed lovers, maligned fates, etc. If I want to run with that angle, we'll talk about West Side Story. What I find of more interest is all of the conflicting emotions of the supporting cast, and how the film de-prioritizes them in the wake of Christian and Satine's more obvious machinations.
The most obvious choice for examination among the supporting cast is The Duke. This might be an unpopular statement, but I'm not willing to write his emotions off entirely. He is cast as an almost entirely sympathetic character, and I'm more than willing to admit that most of his ideas fall under the 'Eros' label, which, in my opinion, is by far the least noble and compelling of the types of love, but still: I believe there are moments in which he truly does care for her. He does a poor job of showing it, and works for all the wrong reasons, but the seed is there. Look at it from this perspective: had the writers been in a different mindset, Moulin Rouge! would have been about a courtesan falling in love with a Duke who loves her back, while a jilted writer plots to seduce Satine. It could have been. The major difference between Christian and The Duke's relationships with Satine is that Satine only returns the feelings for one of them. So, it can be inferred that Moulin Rouge! places a premium on mutual love; repressed or one-sided love is not as important as a duet.
Next: Harold Zidler, the impresario. His feelings for Satine fall entirely within the 'Storge', or familial, category. I'm not sure whether or not Zidler is Satine's father. It feels obvious, but, looking back, it's never stated one way or the other. Blood relation, however, matters not: if not her legitimate father, he has certainly taken the place as father figure. His character is one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the film: everything he does, he does in Satine's best interests. His actions may seem cold or distant at times, but he's only working to protect that which he loves. For this, I'm sure, he can be forgiven. Still, his paternal affections for Satine are no use against the full-on infatuation for Christian.
Moving on: I might catch some crap here, but I think that Toulouse-Latrec harbors a bit of a crush on Christian. Looking for proof? Watch the bedroom scene, right after Satine lies to Christian about loving The Duke: what Toulouse says is full of tenderness and repressed emotion. Watch how he speaks about how he knows about love, if only because 'he craves it with every fiber of my being,' but can't have it. Watch how he looks at Christian. You may not be convinced, but this is my ballgame, so I call the shots. I'm going to file repressed love under 'Agape' (romantic or sacrificial). Particularly sacrificial: it takes work to swallow your emotions day in and day out so the person you care about can be happy. This is what Toulouse does, and I feel like he's one of the more sympathetic characters of the film. Perhaps I'm biased because his definitions of love align most closely with mine: caring for someone more than you care for yourself. It sounds ridiculously simple, but consider it: acting without regard for yourself, because you aren't as important as the person you care about. And so Toulouse does that: he puts himself at risk to warn Christian about The Duke's plot to kill him. Indeed, he puts even more effort into guaranteeing that Christian can be with the woman he loves. And, by golly, it works.
So what are we to glean from the four types of love as demonstrated by Moulin Rouge! I feel that the movie's thesis in this area is as follows: romantic love trumps all other forms, regardless of intensity or legitimacy. Now, don't think I'm being critical of Satine and Christian. Far from it. This is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint. If we look at it from a purely analytical, non-biased perspective, however, it's impossible to ignore the bevy of other emotions that are trampled in the great romantic stampede.
Final conclusion, to be added to our film treatise on love, which one day I might compile?
Romantic love is the most important emotion, and must be purchased at the expense of lesser feelings.

Agree? Disagree? Is my interpretation too harsh? Let me hear it.
(Once again, I just want to stress that I don't intend to belittle Christian or Satine's feelings. They are perfectly legitimate. I'm just taking notice of the smaller issues that most people throw aside.)


  1. I have never seen this movie, but I agree with most of your statements.

    "repressed or one-sided love is not as important
    as a duet."

    I would say that not only is one-sided love less important, but it is also a negative experience whereas mutual love is far from negative.

  2. You've never seen Moulin Rouge? Huh. Sorry, I thought I had one that all my faithful readers had seen. Oh well!

    I'm not sure I agree entirely with your statement. Because love isn't reciprocated, does that make it illegitimate? I agree that it can be negative, but it can be used positively, just like mutual love can lead to negative experiences.

  3. It is definitely not illegitimate. The thought of loving someone and having them essentially not care about you in return just seems unpleasant to me. However, that one-sided love could help the other person, so in that case it would be positive.

  4. I'm not arguing whether or not it's unpleasant (A: of course it is). Your last sentence is what I was getting at: it can be used positively.