Living La Vie En Rouge

By 10 o' clock most nights, the boulevard de Clichy, at the foot of Montmartre, is choked with tour buses heading for the Moulin Rouge. They come from as far away as Poland and Scandinavia, honking and edging their way through traffic before disgorging their wide-eyed passengers into the bright lights and blur of the evening. This is Pigalle, Paris's red-light district, which has fueled the imagination of artists and poets--and emptied the wallets of soldiers and sailors--for more than 200 years. Visitors to Paris tend to as-sociate the city' s fame with the Eiffel Tower. But its sexier, slinkier infamy lies in the streets and alleyways that make up Pigalle, where sex shops are aglow with more neon than a Las Vegas truck stop.

If only it would stay that way. Pigalle will burst back onto the international scene this week with the release of Nicole Kidman's much-ballyhooed film "Moulin Rouge." But today's Pigalle is as different from the almost naive naughtiness of the movie's 19th-century flesh-for-fantasy emporium as Mae West is from Pamela Anderson. Old Pigalle is being replaced by a commercialized mall of McPorn and "family entertainment." Touched as much as any other part of France by globalization, the neighborhood is suffering an existential identity crisis, unsure whether it wants to be a well-scrubbed shell of its former self, a bigger profit center for the skin trade--or a tourist trap. "In the past it was prostitution and pimps," grouses the bartender at the seedy bar Aux Noctambules, "Today it' s a ripoff."

The Moulin Rouge stands at the center of this clash of cultures. The old red lady is doing better than ever these days: by a quarter to 11, the line to get in stretches down the block, and when the doors open doormen fight to keep hangers-on at bay. Revenue jumped 30 percent last year to $30 million--partly because the theater is courting a cleaner image, billing its new production, "Feerie" ("Enchantment"), as a "family show." Nudity is so commonplace in France, from beaches to shampoo ads in the Metro, that bare breasts are not considered shocking, says director Pierre-Antoine Gailly. "You don' t go to the Moulin Rouge to see sex," says Gailly, divorcing the theater from the sex shops that surround it. "I don't even cross the street," says spokeswoman Fanny Rabass with a sniff, referring to the seedier side of the Boulevard de Clichy.

That kind of prudishness once seemed out of place in Pigalle, with its proud tradition of being more than a little risque. As far back as the 17th century, French aristocrats kept their mistresses in private homes there. In the 18th century, the first cabarets opened, many with erotic overtones that weren't to be found in other parts of the city. Prostitution blossomed. Before the Moulin Rouge was created in 1886, its predecessor, a ballroom called La Reine Blanche, was already selling the ephemeral quality that Pigalle had become known for: la galanterie, the courtesy of seduction. "Pigalle has always been the neighborhood of forbidden pleasures," says Alain Plumey, director of the Museum of Erotic Art, which opened in 1997 a block down from the Moulin Rouge, and receives some 150,000 visitors a year.

The fascination with the forbidden hasn't disappeared, but now there's a mall-like quality to it. The sex shops have gone industrial-scale; smaller operations have been bought out by massive multiplexes with names like Sexodrome. And--horreur--a McDonald's now stands prominently on the corner of place Pigalle. In the past, scores of artists lived in Pigalle, including Picasso, van Gogh and the American painter Mary Cassatt. In the 1920s, 82, boulevard de Clichy--right next to the Moulin Rouge--was a meeting point for the surrealists, led by Andre Breton. Today a fast-food outlet called Quick does a brisk business there.

If the wholesome hard sell of the new Moulin Rouge spreads, Pigalle could become almost as Disneyfied as Times Square. No new sex shops have opened up in the past two and a half years, and prostitutes are already a thing of the past. And the neighborhood is becoming fashionable. Again. French film director Claude Lelouche has an apartment there. So does designer Jean-Paul Gauthier.

Still, the old guard is making its stand. In the wee hours, the Moulin Rouge is empty but the bars are full. Pierre Carre is still crooning "Strangers in the Night" at 4 in the morning at Aux Noctambules to a full house. Pierro Ruffini chain-smokes Marlboro Lights, reminiscing about the 20 girls who once worked for him as strip-dancers and who are now happily married. In the early-morning air, a scantily clad American girl in heels totters drunk down the street with her beau on one arm. If Toulouse-Lautrec were there, he'd paint it.