When the Can-Can Was Divine

A Muslim scholar deconstructs Best Picture nominee 'Moulin Rouge'

(Originally published on Beliefnet.com. in October, 2002.  See below for the link.)

 

Alan Godlas is an associate professor of religion at the University of Georgia who specializes in Islamic studies and Arabic. A Westerner, he studied Alan GoldlasSufism in the United States and at the University of Teheran in Iran. His five-year-old website has become an information hub for Muslims in the United States.

"Moulin Rouge" is a dreamlike fantasy, set in the famous nightclub in turn-of-the-last-century
Paris, where the singer and courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) is the main attraction. To finance his next extravaganza, the Moulin Rouge's owner offers Satine to a rich duke. Satine, however, falls in love with the penniless writer of the planned show, and when the Duke finds out, both the future of the club and the lovers are imperiled. Dr. Godlas talked with Culture producer Paul O'Donnell what "Moulin Rouge" might mean to a person of faith.

 

Note that in addition to the above remarks, the comments of the interviewer, Paul O'Donnell, are in bold. Dr. Godlas' remarks follow in normal font.

 

Obviously, a big theme was the power of love.

Right, but what really interested me was how divine love might be clarified by looking at this presentation of worldly love. In the Christian West, with the Enlightenment and modernism, divine love ceases to be at the center of Western civilization, and instead you had two main competing attitudes toward love: romanticism, or love for love's sake, contrasted with love and sex as means of achieving security in the world. These two themes are still battling it out; I think the movie was portraying the tension between those two.

So you have the voice of the young writer, the Ewan McGregor's character, competing with the voice of security being offered by the Duke, romanticism versus love in the service of materialism.

And it's no doubt which we're supposed to pick.

The movie tilts toward love for love's sake, even though it does it with a kind of mocking tone. I don't know if this was conscious on the part of the director or not. In modernism, we take this dialectic very seriously, but the movie had a sort of postmodernist grace note advising us to treat it all as play. There was a sort of superficial, trite commentary that we shouldn't take this too seriously.

But I began thinking about how these two themes are relevant to someone who is on a path of spiritual love. On a path of love of God, there are those who emphasize that true love of God has to be unattached, unconditional, without attention to reward, just love of God for the sake of love of God. You have in Sufism--the mystical tradition that I'm most familiar with--but also in bakhti yoga, as well as types of Christian mysticism, the idea that the unconditional lover is satisfied, however the beloved appears. On the other hand, there is the more exoteric spiritual love relationship where someone loves God for the sake of salvation, for the reward in the hereafter.

In the Sufi tradition, the poet Rumi really plays the two against one another. He emphasizes the need for giving up hope for reward. He emphasizes being in love with God for the sheer pleasure of it. In "Moulin Rouge," the courtesan hears the Duke's message--"Oh I'll be able to be a real actress," she says, "I'll have security, I'm a material girl after all." This is like someone who is loving God for the sake of reward and not for God's sake alone. It makes it seem rather crass. This kind of love is vastly inferior to the unconditional love of God.

But both God and the Duke--not that the moviemakers were trying to make this parallel--both invite us to pursue that security.

Yes, God invites us to salvation. And if we take that, that's okay. But from the ecstatic Sufi perspective, God extends another invitation, which is more profound, which is to love God without being motivated by desire for paradise or fear of hell. There's a story that's told of Rabi'a, an important Sufi woman, who one day was seen walking through the city with a torch in one hand and a bucket in the other. And someone asked her, "Rabi'a, what are you doing?" And she said "With this bucket I am going to quench the fires of hell so that no one will be devoted to God out of fear of hell. And with this torch I'm going to burn the gardens of paradise so no one will be devoted to God for desire for paradise."

Are they mutually exclusive?

Not necessarily. As people grow spiritually, they are often attracted to divine love for the perks, one of which is salvation. But a more sober Sufi perspective would say it's important to recognize that hope of salvation is a stage that is very nurturing but once believers get to the point where they contrast salvation with unconditional love of God, they begin to taste the difference and let go of the motivation for salvation.

Satine, Nicole Kidman's character, gets this. She tries to give up the writer and with him the comforts of his love, for his own good.

Right. The movie says love for love's sake means that love for the sake of security-or love for the sake of paradise--must die.

And on that score the movie may be too simplistic. It says you have to choose one or the other. For some Sufi thinkers, however, there is no dichotomy in divine love. Unconditional love of God doesn't exclude love of paradise. Rather, love of paradise plays a role in the movement to the unconditional love of God.

Sufism, like most mystical traditions, looks at the reality behind nature. It struck me that the Moulin Rouge itself is a place of fantasy, of false reality. Even the show the players are putting on parallels the story we're watching on another plane.

You could look at the Moulin Rouge as a microcosm of reality as a whole. People aren't conscious that life is like a theater. I saw the Moulin Rouge as a more extreme version of what we call reality. Sufism says the pervading reality is a sea of oneness, one of the qualities of which is love.

The master of ceremonies struck me as a kind of a transcendent character.

He was a kind of magus. But I'm not sure he really makes it as a transcendent figure, because he seems too invested in the Duke's offer. If he were truly transcendent, he wouldn't have been so attached.

You said earlier there's a postmodern, mocking note in the film. That seemed most apparent in the artists who befriend the writer. They're a sort of Greek chorus chanting truth, beauty, freedom, and love. But the film treats them as clowns, and their ideals as just catch phrases.

It appears that our hero, the writer, isn't facing just one antagonist in the Duke; he's also facing the postmodern antagonist that tries to make light of the whole thing. At the end, too, the director chose to pull away and show the city from above, as if to remind us that this is a tiny story, really. In a way the movie offers us love and then takes it away over and over again, almost as if, from a perspective of faith, love is just a means God is using to draw people even beyond love. From that perspective, God is drawing the lovers of God to himself--God uses love--but in the end, in order to reach absolute truth, even love is no more.

http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/2002/03/When-The-Can-Can-Was-Divine.aspx?p=1 )