This is a story about love.
I grew up dreaming about the Moulin Rouge and its glowing red windmill towering over the Montmartre rooftops. Not thanks to the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film but in spite of it. As a half-blood Frenchman growing up in England, the Moulin Rouge was an iconographic representation of French and Parisian culture. Growing up, I fantasised of sitting at one of the candle-lit tables and witnessing the archetypal event myself. However, I always was reluctant to go out of fear of crushing disappointment.
It wasn’t until after 6 years of residing in France that I overcame my anxieties. On the 6th June 2017, Paul Anthony and I entered the Moulin Rouge’s atrium for the 9pm showing of the Revue Féerie oblivious of what we’d experience inside.
Spectacles take place everyday with but a few exceptions as well as special events on New Year’s Eve. Three performances take place at 7pm, 9pm and 11pm with VIP tickets available. The first, more expensive, option is the dinner show, which comes with a three-course meal. Pricing varies each day with Monday and Tuesday performances occasionally being slightly cheaper by 5 to 10€.
Moulin Rouge Average Pricing
- 7pm Dinner Show: 190€ (extra menu options available)
- 7pm VIP Dinner Show: 420€
- 9pm Show: 115€ (+10€ for 1/2 bottle of champagne)
- 9pm VIP Show: 210€
- 11pm Show: 102€ (+10€ for 1/2 bottle of champagne)
- 11pm VIP Show: 210€
VIP tickets offer a few extra trimmings as well as priority seating. Generally, this provides costumers with free use of the cloak room, 1/2 a bottle of champagne, macarons and an elusive “gift.” For the dinner show, VIP ticket holders will have the same benefits as other shows as well as a “festive table”, premium rosé champagne and fine wine for the three-course meal as well as a photo souvenir.
The Moulin Rouge is located at 82 Boulevard de Clichy, Paris 75018. When on the boulevard, the big red windmill is hard to miss and the entrance is just underneath.
[To get directions to the Moulin Rouge on Google Maps from your current location, click here.]
Paris’ famed metro system may be overwhelming for the newcomer but is quite simple once the basics have been grasped. The way to see it is like a spiderweb with interconnected branches that revolve around an epicentre (Chatelet Les Halles). A single RATP ticket costs 1.90€ and is valid for all connections within zones 1 and 2 until you step out the gates. A “carnet” or stack of 10 tickets can be purchased for 14.50€.
The Moulin Rouge is right in front of the Blanche Metro Station on Line 2 (blue line). Alternatively, it’s a short walk way from Pigalle, which connects both the Line 2 and Line 12 (green line). Whilst Line 12 arches around the west of Paris, Line 2 reaches across the east. Just be mindful around the northern stations as it can be a little rough around the edges with pickpockets here and there.
Parisian taxi drivers are notorious and they can be a little pricey with tourists. However, Uber has a very efficient network in Paris with excellent service. If you’d prefer to move around the City of Lights without taking the metro at night, Uber is a very safe bet. Like elsewhere, the service can be accessed from its native app on iOS, Android and Windows Phone.
Moulin Rouge Dress Code
Toulouse Lautrec’s late-19th Century commissioned works of the Moulin Rouge may feature debauched gentlemen in white tie and top hats. However, the cabaret’s era of stiff collars, monocles and canes is long gone.
According to the Moulin Rouge’s official site, smart dress is requested when attending the venue. It goes on to state that shorts, Bermuda shorts, ﬂipﬂops, sportswear and sports shoes are not permitted. Nevertheless, the application of these guidelines seemed relaxed to say the least.
The Moulin Rouge today probably accepts a casual dress code so to cater to tourists coming in off the street. Although sneakers seem tolerated, most patrons endeavoured to make an effort and edge toward smart-casual attire. For instance, more common styles amid men were jeans and open collar shirts paired with a blazer and dress shoes. Polo shirts and chinos were also a preferred choice and go well with the right choice in shoe coordination.
Among women, apparel would generally lean towards casual evening or bodycon dresses but tank tops and jeans weren’t entirely absent. As a general rule, the dress code fitted that of a typical night out. That said, it would probably be more suitable to lean towards smarter than casual styles. Although shorts and sandals may be tolerated, they’re ill-suited to the setting’s environment.
However, those wishing to make an occasion of the event wouldn’t feel out of place. Some American women were seen in stylised 1920s flapper dresses whilst men in a shirt and tie weren’t entirely absent. Unfortunately, the only dinner jackets and tuxedos to be seen were on staff.
Queuing and Seating
Ticket owners are first ushered through the front door by a burly but courteous doorman. After a pat down from other staff, which is now commonplace for any public event in France, clients are guided towards another atrium where they will queue for ticket checks and seating. Note that there is a coat room available, which is free for VIP ticket holders. However, large bags or luggage are no longer allowed.
After a short wait, a polite usher in black tie will guide you to your seats. Tipping staff is not a requisite in the Moulin Rouge unlike most concert halls in France. Staff automatically spoke to visitors in English and were even surprised when responded to in French. Although the Moulin Rouge is something of a tourist money-making machine, the service still felt personal and approachable.
Seating is unfortunately something of a lottery at the Moulin Rouge. The official states that the seating plan is prepared on the day “in order to provide you with the best possible service.” Therefore, no seat numbers are issued with tickets. We struck short and were placed at the back of the concert hall beside the balcony.
This left us with a limited view despite having paid around 130€ per seat. Therefore, although we booked two days beforehand and tickets are available at the door, avoid disappointment by planning ahead.
Although, the Moulin Rouge may market their round candle-lit tables, which is partly true. However, we found ourselves against the wall sharing a miniscule and fragile table with four strangers.
For a small man like myself, the seating was bearable. However, for taller men like Paul, it was imaginably excruciating to say the least. One of our neighbours ended up preferring the staircase instead and tripping up unsuspecting waiters in the process.
For an extra 10€, tickets include half a bottle of champagne per person. Given that we were a pair, a waiter efficiently came to serve us an entire bottle to share. It was opened in front of us, we were served and provided an ice bucket. Sadly, we were served in normal wine glasses and not flute, tulip or coupes designed for sparkling wine.
The waiters also had a tendency to fill the glasses to the brim rather than half-way as is customary. I would overlook this given that most participants were unlikely to be standing on ceremony. However, eyebrows would be raised if it happened in an established restaurant.
The champagne was a Delamotte Brut, which values at around 25€ in France and $40 in the US. In terms of value, it’s worth the extra 10€ each. Unfortunately, ours was very corky but to their credit it was quickly replaced without question upon alerting a passing waiter.
Hopefully, other costumers would feel assured to do likewise rather than politely endure a poor bottle throughout the spectacle. As the French do take their wine seriously and the staff were indeed polite, it wouldn’t cause a fuss.
Although there are better wines available in this price range, Delamotte, owned by Laurent Perrier, is an award-winning house. In 2016, it received the bronze at the Decanter World Wine Award and has been noted in the Guide Hachette des Vins in previous years.
At the right temperature, it comes across as a conservative but enjoyable champagne with a crisp apple nose. It was surprisingly low in yeast with a faint hint of toast. There are notes of zest and toffee apples on the palate with a slight mineral finish. Overall, a very quaffable champagne.
Moulin Rouge – The Spectacle
Sadly, the champagne ended up being the performance’s highlight. In fact, it was something of a comfort as I witnessed my dreams crumble before my very eyes.
We opened on a grand overture featuring the entire troupe adorned in head-to-toe silver uniforms that consisted of jackets, baseball caps and trousers. Of course, the women ripped theirs off almost instantly to wow the public with their buns of steel. The choreography felt slightly off as they sung “dance, dance, Paris, dance” and we hoped that this kitsch glitz would be quickly over.
Unfortunately, it had just begun.
The spectacle was broken down into three acts separated by short variety sketches with different duos.
The variety acts, although generally routine, were quite entertaining. The shoddy opening itself was closed off with a Starlight Express inspired roller-skating scene with intriguing BDSM undertones. A couple would spin around together on a small platform, attached at the neck with leather belt.
As they spun faster, the woman would be take flight and kept from propelling into the audience by the belt. It was an impressive display of centripetal force that would have made Sir Isaac Newton proud.
The second sketch was a little strange, however. In short, it involved Russian Sean Pertwee lookalike benching a woman doing a handstand on his head to Christmas music.
The third and final variety sketch that was probably the best of the entire show where two men played construction workers in dungarees. The act itself consisted of an acrobatic play-fight to the tune of Singing in the Rain.
Entitled “Féerie”, the show’s theme played on the idea of a “fairyland” or “magical extravaganza”. In this light, the first act treated us to a contrived semi-nude interpretation of Arabian Nights. However, the camp posturing and cheesy pre-recorded music felt closer to local pantomime than quality cabaret entertainment.
As the straight-to-VHS Aladdin sequel drew to a close, we were given a Temple of Doom style ceremony. A water tank filled with snakes suddenly rose from beneath the stage. This appeared promising until a sacrificed dancer launched herself into the aquarium. The dancer flailed about whilst the speakers struggled with compressed danger music. She then proceeded to throw herself on the poor snakes that seemed to want only to leave.
Now, I realise that I’m in a minority when I say I like clowns. However, even I was ambivalent at the circus-themed act. The women were a surreal, scantily-clad variety of David Bowie’s Glam Rock Ashes to Ashes clowns. Passable if it little fetishist. The men, however, were full-blown red-nosed, wig-wearing clowns with oversized trousers and shoes.
The episode jumped between songs representing various circus acts such as women pretending to be lions and real-life miniature horses. The low point of this part was two women sharing a costume and singing about being conjoined twins. Naturally, the lyrics were in French, which is fortunate given that they were uninspired and clichéd. In short, it was odd and completely missed the mark.
It wasn’t until around an hour in that we finally stumbled upon what the audience had come for. The act brilliantly opens with women singing a French Java whilst leaning out of an apartment window lit in red. In another corner of the stage, a woman drunkenly stumbles around a lampost and joins in the song.
The act built up with the appearance of a belle époque art nouveau set in the background. The scene then intensified with sailors, Parisian cads in period costume, ladies of the night and, of course, Arsène Lupin.
The act wonderfully established the scene with a romantic yet gritty representation of Pigalle, the Moulin Rouge’s home and notorious red light district. It escalated with the first woman getting into a choreographed drunken scuffle with a gendarme, which transitioned into a Cancan.
Finally, we were home. After an hour wait, the audience got to experience what they came for even if it was but a glimpse. Tricolore frills filled the stage with acrobatic choreography, squealing women and general cavorting to Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
The Shows Finale
Sadly, the elation was short-lived. After an enjoyable Glen Miller rendition celebrating the liberation of Paris for D-Day, we returned to gaudy costumes and corny acts. However, what was originally a bearably camp pantomime now became a chintzy cruise ship performance.
From synth that would have made Kraftwerk blush to garish disco, we endured the succession of bad taste until the finale. Low points included Mad Max Thunderdome costumes paired with an interpretation of I Will Survive with a jarring French accent.
The finale itself was an amalgamation of 1970s French glitz, which was best left in the past. Timeless classics including I love Paris (Cole Porter) and Sous le Ciel de Paris (Edith Piaf) and À Paris (Yves Montand) were brutally and mercilessly macerated together in a humiliating medley. Toulouse-Lautrec, Mintinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf and Joséphine Baker would be all rolling in their graves.
Original songs featured lyrics such as “Belles, belles, belles. Les filles du moulin sont belles, belles, belles” or “C’est féerique, top modèles, top musique…” Granted, it’s in French and needs to remain relatively simple to be universal. However, a little effort would go a long way. There’s a reason that La Vie en Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien resonate so well with English-speaking audiences.
The general superficiality reminded me of the later Claude François concerts. However, it’s unlikely that the foreign audience familiar with “Cloclo’s” glitter, wide lapels and flared trousers. Therefore, the charm was doubtlessly lost in translation and instead felt like a cheap and dated casino spectacle.
For a Frenchman, the resulting confection bears a stronger resemblance to Patrick Sébastien and his clique. If you’re (fortunately) unfamiliar with who that is, he represents the quintessential “beauf” – someone vulgar, unintelligent, arrogant and/or chauvinistic.
After some brief research, elements the Féerie performance including the finale has been around for some years now – decades even. The Moulin Rouge needs to seriously reconsider its position in French culture. Furthermore, it direly needs to realise that it’s not catering to Patrick Sébastien fans but to an international audience.
The Moulin Rouge’s Place In The World
Glitz extravaganza and niche themes are not the reasons that the public pays very handsomely for a night at the Red Windmill. They come for the heritage, a bygone and romantic conceptualised Paris filled with paved roads and accordion music. They come to witness first-hand the mystic Parisian romanticism and to understand why we call it the city of lights. However, they didn’t come for artificial fluff, pink glitter and pre-recorded synthetic music. Leave the cheese for the dinner table and switch off the neon to reveal those sepia tones.
The Moulin Rouge needs to understand that it’s perceived by the world as a historical institution and a cultural beacon. It’s by exploring its past and impact on French identity at home and abroad, that it will stay relevant.
Even the 2001 film that I decided to re-watch through gritted teeth manages to scratch the surface on this concept. The cabaret itself needs to rediscover the exhilaration of creating an adventure that feeds off our romantic desires and nostalgic fantasies.
"The Moulin Rouge is an iconic venue but crushingly disappointing spectacle. Despite first-rate service and reasonable champagne, seeing the Moulin Rouge firsthand risks crippling disillusionment for even the most cynical romantic."Rating: 2.0 ★★
Alternative & Nearby Late-Night Venue
After such an emotional roller-coaster, Paul and I needed another venue to digest the experience. At the risk of further disappointment of a tourist trap, we headed to the Chat Noir, another iconic venue of the Pigalle area. However, it turned out to be a pleasantly surprisingly setting to wind down from the night. The venue offers live music and on this occasion we were treated to a blues band that smoothly reinterpreted a few classics.
It’s worth noting that the original Chat Noir was historically the first traditional cabaret. However, between 1881 and 1897, the established moved twice before settling at its current location at 68, Boulevard de Clichy.
Although the Chat Noir was a raucous nightclub, it has grown into a cosy brasserie-style bar, restaurant and hotel. Nevertheless, it’s a surprisingly authentic location, which hosts a variety of costumers both French and foreign.
Being a very laid back location, you can come for a three-course meal, a quick bite or even just a refreshing drink or coffee. We ordered a bottle of 2014 Grand Ricombre Lussac Saint-Émilion to drink. Although the red wasn’t exceptional, it paired pleasantly with a traditional homemade onion soup for starters and a well-prepared duck confit for main course. For the neighbourhood, the value was surprisingly good and the quality of the food was very satisfying.
The night-time setting is quintessentially Parisian making an ideal spot to wrap up a rowdy night in Pigalle. We were content to just sit back, listen to the music while smoking cigars and talking until the early hours of the morning. Furthermore, the Chat Noir serves throughout the night until 6am so can be a snug venue even after a late one.