Screenplay Analysis: Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001)

Recently, I had an author come and speak to the teens at my library about screenwriting. She emphasized that the key to writing a good screenplay is to read a lot of screenplays and watch a lot of movies. The watching movies part I can do! She challenged us to go home, watch a movie that was about two hours long and break it down. Here are the rules:

1. A good screenplay lasts no more than two hours. After that, an audience will get antsy. Of course, some movies are longer than two hours, but you do this at great risk and will have to do something special to compensate.
2. A good story is when someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.
3. Each screenplay has three acts. Act I is about 45 minutes to an hour. Acts II will be the longest. Act III is the shortest because a movie should accelerate at the end. Each act ends with a cliffhanger to keep people from walking out.
4. Besides that structure, a two hour movie is made up of eight 15-minute sequences.
5. Right in the middle, there is a moment called a midpoint where something is reversed.
6. Each story should have a protagonist and an antagonist. In action, adventure type movies, this person is a villain. In a romance, the lover is the antagonist. Not an enemy, but the person standing in the main character's way.

Okay, so I went home and watched Moulin Rouge. This is such a great example. I could really see what she was talking about by watching this movie. Not everything was exactly 15 minutes, but I got the idea of the structure and could follow along.


Act I is what I call the Falling in Love act. In this act, our hero, Christian, accompanies his new friends to the Moulin Rouge, where they hope to employ him as the lead composer for their theoretical play that will give a voice to the Bohemian Revolution. That night, Christian meets and falls for Satine, the lead courtesan that works at the Moulin Rouge. This lasts about 55 minutes. It starts at the beginning and ends when Christian and Satine kiss for the first time and realize they are in love. They decide to be lovers.

Act II lasts about 57 minutes. You could call this the Love Triangle, Suspicion, and Jealousy Act. In this act, we meet the Duke, who is going to finance the show as long as he gets exclusive rights to Satine. Christian and Satine bravely try to maintain their love, but it's hard when they have to hide it. Things come to a breaking point when the Duke threatens to kill Christian. Satine decides that she loves him too much to allow this to happen. She also learns that she is dying. She decides to tell him that she doesn't love him anymore in hopes that he will move on. Christian sinks into a depression. The cliff hanger is when Christian walks to the Moulin Rouge one last time.

Act III only lasts about 15 minutes. You could call this the Last Night at the Moulin Rouge act. In this act, Christian goes back to the Moulin Rouge and confronts Satine. He does this during the play, and although the fight is for real, the audience thinks it's part of the show. The Duke's henchman tries to kill Christian. Despite all obstacles, Satine and Christian cannot be apart so reaffirm firm their love with a special song. The show is a success. Satine then dies.

The lead character is Christian. Christian wants very badly to live a life epitomized by beauty, truth, and love. He come to Paris to be a Bohemian revolutionary, but he's not sure where to start. This is what puts him in this story. Later one, he realizes the things he wants badly is Satine.

I wasn't sure which moment was the midpoint. My first thought is that it is the scene when Satine tells Christian she doesn't love him, but that is more than midway through the film. Other important moments are when you think Satine is going to sleep with the Duke to appease him, breaking Christian's heart. At the last moment, she can't do it, and the Duke tries to take her by force. Instead, a friend of Satine's renders the Duke unconscious. I thought this could be the midpoint since there is so much tension leading up to that moment.

This is the first time I have done this before, so I am not claiming these are definitely the answers. But tell me what you think in the comments. Has anyone seen this movie? Arguments are welcome for other points if you don't agree with my breakdown.