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Formidable! My night at the Moulin Rouge

If you’ve seen the movie Moulin Rouge (2001), then no doubt you’re expecting an extravagant, musical story about this evening. Let me set you straight: It was off-putting. Weird, even.

Lautrec's poster for the Moulin Rouge: Concert Bal. Tous le soirs. La Goulue. shows a dancing girl exposing her bloomers with silhouettes of men in the background and a grey gent in the foreground looking scandalized
Toulouse Lautrec’s famous poster that he made for the Moulin Rouge, circa 1891

Now, if you haven’t seen that film, then maybe you saw the 1958 classic, Moulin Rouge, which is based on a novel about the artist Toulouse Lautrec. (Played well by Jose Ferrer.) Lautrec created one of the most famous posters ever made. It now resides in the Met, but in 1890s Paris, the exposed legs of the dancer was considered pornographic. Oh, how times have changed.

Fast forward about a hundred years, and I was visiting some friends who were touring France. I had been living in Prague for most of that year, and it was before I picked up enough Czech to understand what people were saying. My French was good enough that I could catch every other word or so, so I felt a huge sense of relief, understanding what the hell was going on. That is, until on a lark, we decided to go see the show at the Moulin Rouge. We made our way to Montmartre so that we could see the famous cabaret. Little did I know it would be life changing.

The word unhinged seems extreme. But the show did have that effect on me.

Moulin Rouge, from formidable to faerie

At the time, the show was called “Formidable,” which means ‘amazing’ or ‘brilliant’ in French. I will note the etymology, because it’s pertinent. It stems from the latin formidabilis, which means ‘great’ or ‘terrible’ and its root is formido, which translates to English as ‘fear’ or ‘terror’. (And hence our word formidable: inspiring fear or respect.)

The show is a faerie. According to Wikipedia, this is a French theatrical genre which is known for fantasy, spectacle and cool stage effects. (And if you go to the Moulin Rouge today, that is the name of the show: Faerie!) This was a popular form in the nineteenth century; eventually, it was supplanted by the movies.

The most famous part of the Moulin Rouge is the scantily-clad women dancing the can-can. Before writing this, I checked the Moulin Rouge website, and it looks like they are still doing their thing.

So, this doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

A feztastic show

The opening act was truly bizarre. Fog rolled out, the band started playing and a giant water tank slowly came out of the stage. There was a listless alligator floating in the tank. It looked like it had been tranquilized. Or perhaps, it had seen the clowns backstage and was as dumbfounded as I was about to be.

Then, coming through the fog like Hector, a giant figure of a man. He was easily six foot five, but not the muscular kind. His build was somewhere between a sumo wrestler and a veteran linebacker. He wore what today can only be described as a Borat-like singlet that left far too little to the imagination. He had an enormous … mustache. Bristly and full of madness. The look was topped off, literally, by a burgundy fez.

There was no introduction, not even in French. We had no idea who this guy was, or what he was about to do. If we had known, I would have left the room for a while.

a burgundy fez with black tassles

He jumped into the tank. This was not an act of heroism. He clearly outweighed the alligator by at least a hundred pounds. The poor reptile was insensible. He grabbed it, and started thrashing it around the tank.

When I was a kid, my grandfather used to take us to the beach, where he would throw us around in the water. Our favorite thing was something he called “bumwipers”, where he would skip us along the water on our butts, in a wide semi-circle.

This maniac in a fez ruined my memory of bumwipers. He skipped the poor beast around, threw it up, caught it, dunked it. I still can’t believe the cops didn’t break into the show, and stop the whole thing. It was that criminal.

Apart from the table of Japanese businessmen next to us, who thought the whole thing was hilarious, the audience was dumbfounded. The only thing that was impressive about the whole shameful act was that somehow he kept the fez on during all of those maneuvers. A smattering of applause.

My coulrophobia (mild)

Next act. I can’t remember. The atrocity I’d just witnessed had numbed me.

Third act. Clowns.

I uttered something. I may have moaned a bit. I certainly wasn’t acting normally, because my friend Barry leaned over and said, “Are you okay?”

I was beyond speech. The clowns washed my brain like a hit of acid.

Honestly, the next few acts were a blur. There was music, which helped bring me back to sensibility.

The can-can conundrum

Then the can-can began. It was quite fun. The energy level in the room rose several levels. The women were beautiful and athletic. Uplifting.

They started in traditional outfits, the kind you see in the early posters and Lautrec’s paintings. Then they switched to rhinestone outfits that covered everything, though they didn’t leave much to the imagination. Their final outfit included two bits. A part that covered the groin, more or less, and a part that was purely ornamental. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, you’ll understand. They weren’t topless, but their boobs were exposed. The bizarre tops were these strange mammary encirclers, that I’m sure were meant to be titillating. (Sorry, not sorry.) But they were anything but. The clothing just accentuated the bouncing.

The bouncing.

Then I had the thought. The vile thought that unhinged me. The thought from which I never really recovered:

No matter how sane things seem, no matter where I am in the world, no matter how well-adjusted I feel … this show happens every night.

Moulin Rouge photo by Jose Vasquez (Pexels)

Fez by Edouard Hue (CC-3)

cover art of The Fridgularity and Marvellous Hairy, both by Mark A. Rayner

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