Red Curtain Thinkpiece 3: Kind of Like Tarantino with More Glitter
Like almost every girl who was alive during the 90s, I grew up having a big celebrity crush on Leonardo DiCaprio. For me, this is mainly because of Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, which came out in 1996 and absolutely looks like it; it’s probably fortunate that the 90s are back in fashion. A lot could be said about any single aspect of this movie because, as a film, it is a lot overall. I had a different essay drafted about this movie when I made the decision to write about it for Depth of Field and Midnight Romero Society. In fact, I’ve had a lot of different essays drafted about this movie a lot of times, and it has taken me a while to get to where I can narrow my focus on a few of the things that I want to say, because I have so much I want to say about it. Right now, some of what I currently find particularly interesting about this adaptation is its overall visual aesthetic and the framing similarities between this movie to someone like Quentin Tarantino’s crime movies of the 90s; the films fill a similar genre space, and Luhrmann as a director is, I think, someone who approaches his films a lot like Tarantino does, albeit with more explicit camp and less explicit violence. They’re both directors of the 1990s whose work represents a particular style trend specific to that era. I guess this is just a really long way of saying that I really like the way this movie looks, and that I think the visual style of this film is iconic, and I like that it has a lot of similarities to other films I like which are by Tarantino (who is a director I probably won’t write directly about for this particular column. Oh well).
Romeo + Juliet is the second movie in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, following Strictly Ballroom and preceding Moulin Rouge! This film sometimes invites scorn and ridicule for a few reasons; DiCaprio and Danes as Romeo and Juliet don’t always deliver the lines well, and also, the translation of the play to a 90s Verona Beach—the pop-ification of Shakespeare—was also critiqued. Others have already discussed this at length, as well as some of the small character changes in the script, and while important, it’s not the lens through which I care to look at this film. Besides that, Shakespeare is regularly adapted, reinvented, and reintroduced to audiences in a variety of different ways and this will continue to happen as long as there’s access to the texts. For another point, it wasn’t as though Elizabethan costuming was particularly married to being historically accurate, resituating its own historical stories to its time—almost like this is something people regularly do in telling multimodal narratives like in stage and film. Anyway, Luhrmann interprets Romeo + Juliet as a crime tragedy in which two mafia families (both alike in dignity, etc.) who compete for control over the city lose their kids to their feud with significant collateral damage. Considering Luhrmann’s reasoning for this shift as stated in a few interviews was that he wanted to do Shakespeare the way Shakespeare today might have needed to in order compete in the entertainment market, a lot of the emphasis that gets placed on the visual language of the film as well as the decision to place it more squarely in the crime genre makes sense.
Some of the most striking moments of the film are due more to its aesthetics than to the acting, and still shots of this movie would lend themselves really well to a glossy coffee table artbook (if such a thing doesn’t exist already). They’re the type of images that were popular on Tumblr almost a decade ago, a neon aesthetic that never really went away, but which has been coming back. It is easy to say that Luhrmann is the kind of director who really is native to stage, but who uses the effects of film to manage accomplishing what one might wish they could do in a theater; the impossible made available because of the ability to edit. For a movie like Romeo + Juliet, this kind of staging is important; despite being a tragedy, this is a brightly colored text, dynamic and not in love with its seriousness in a way so many adaptations—which often use more muted palettes in comparison to the primary colors which light the first scene here—often visually get bogged down in. Instead, the movie is sunsoaked like its setting, oversaturated. There is genuine pleasure here in film as a medium through which storytelling happens, and which can happen even without dialogue. If you were to watch this film on mute, you would still be able to get a sense of the place based on the use of repeated visual motifs like angels, crosses, and the Virgin Mary against the hazy city, and you’d be able to get a sense of the characters based on the actors’ body cues, the costuming, and the kind of editing cuts that get from point A to point B in a scene.
I keep thinking about the repetition of Romeo’s vision of the church where he will see Juliet in the casket. The neon crosses and the flower arrangements at the end of each pew and the symmetry leading down the aisle is intentionally dreamlike; it first appears when Romeo is describing his dream to Mercutio, who laughs at it, and then its reappearance provides a gateway between the world of the living and the dead. The maximalism present even at the side of death, with as many candles as are in Juliet’s bedroom when Romeo appears following his murder of Tybalt, creates a soft lighting in contrast with the neon lights; the green of the foliage and the white of the flowers combined with Romeo’s appearance in his blue Hawaiian shirt keeps the chapel from feeling cold but more similar to the image of the “maw, thou womb of death” conjured by the language used by Shakespeare—a warm, wet mouth opening up to be fed. Not sterile, not clean. The composition of the shot keeps Romeo centered, and then Juliet at the altar in the casket too; this is as much a wedding scene at the end of the film as it can be, and the camera looks down the aisle at Romeo like Juliet might if she were standing, waiting for him, and greets her similarly by staring at her from a distance.
Another moment that I return to often is when Juliet and Romeo first meet in the film. Romeo’s trip experience is a little short; he sobers up quickly enough after dunking his head underwater (a moment which echoes Juliet’s earlier introduction, where her hair swirls around her with her own head underwater), but who’s to say that he might not still be in a pleasant fog leading up to meeting Juliet? The use of the fish tank to obscure them from each other combines two of my favorite things: first, the delayed gratification as the characters spy each other through the glass, and second, cool exotic fish tanks. Capulet’s party itself provides a lot of options for memorable stills—each frame is filled with color, visual excitement—and this particular scene has the same energy. Between their first conversation leading up to pressing into the elevator to hide from Juliet’s mother, the effect of the costumes and the opulence of Capulet’s mansion provide iconic images that provide good visual storytelling. Once again, it would probably be possible to watch this scene without the dialogue (even though, honestly, the delivery of the dialogue here is pretty good—I am, however, biased, since the sonnet between Romeo and Juliet here is one of my favorites that Shakespeare ever wrote) and still understand what’s happening: strangers who are trying to get away from the people who they’re supposed to be at this party with run into each other. They’re pleasantly surprised by how cute the person on the other side of the fish tank is. They flirt, and they flirt with each other pretty well. The people they’re hiding from are about to find them, so they escape into an elevator for more flirting and some smooching. Then, the revelation on their respective faces when they’re pulled in different directions—this is someone who they shouldn’t be kissing, in a place where they shouldn’t be kissing, where the presence of one of them is enough to cause anger on the part of other people. I like the obviousness of the scene. Whenever I think about this movie, I think about the costumes DiCaprio and Danes wear here; the angel wings and the low-effort knight costume work together to create a sense of timelessness or apartness from time.
There are a few similarities to Tarantino’s films; notably, the character title cards at the start of the film, the scene in which Mercutio dies, and the use of color throughout feel similar to those crime movies, as does some of the timelessness which exists in the decay of structures on the beach, the structure of the Capulet mansion, and the juxtaposition of the pews versus the neon crosses in the church. I don’t mean this disparagingly, but I think both Luhrmann and Tarantino make movies to look like movies; it’s Hollywood if Hollywood were Florida. The crime in Romeo + Juliet is perhaps not as immediately bloody as crime and violence in Tarantino, but the guns playing such a significant feature throughout the film—stand-ins though they might be for swords—and the amount of blood that gets shed between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo leading up to Juliet’s suicide makes for more commonality than there usually would be between the work of the two directors.
This doesn’t feel like I’ve said a sufficient amount about this movie, and it’s been a struggle just to get this far, to find a landing ground on which I can start talking about Romeo + Juliet and focus on something besides the lines themselves. When I sat down to rewatch the movie again, I was in a pining mode—which is fitting, because this, probably more than any other movie, is the one which I watch when I am feeling a particular wistful and yearning mood come over me (which is the focus of Depth of Field anyway! To talk about the movies that I watch when I need that mood to be acknowledged, recognized, and hopefully resolved so I can move on). For all the things I want to say about the Big Florida Energy of this movie (and it does have immense Florida energy), or all the comparisons between like, Mercutio dying and Reservoir Dogs that come to mind (possibly because Luhrmann and Tarantino are both guys who like to make movies that refer to other texts), or even that the Coca-Cola sign in Strictly Ballroom makes its appearance in modified form on the beach in Romeo + Juliet, at the end of the day, while these cues and references might be significant enough to write an essay about, and they’re a huge part of why I like this particular adaptation over others, at the end of the day, this movie is my number one hurt-heart comfort movie. I like watching the excitement that DiCaprio and Danes are genuinely able to get across in that initial scene where they meet through the fish tank, not only because visually it’s a cool way of creating an artificial barrier between the two characters, but because it reminds me a lot of what it used to feel like to have a crush on someone and the anticipation of something coming out of that crush. It’s a great movie to crush to. It’s also a great reminder that for all the flashiness and beauty and excitement that comes with having a crush or a boyfriend, if he and his friends are constantly getting into fights with other people and your own family has some generational issues with violence, maybe getting involved with this guy isn’t good for you in the long run. Or even the short run. It doesn’t matter if a set decorator, costume designer, and director are all able to work together to get everything to match so well that the guy’s gorgeous eyes pop every time you see him, or that the edginess and bravado that comes with carrying guns feels more glamorous when it’s rich guys doing it. If your shared family priest’s reaction to your husband, who you’ve known for about a day, doing gun violence, killing your cousin because he killed his best friend, is to tell him to go to you and do his husbandly duties because it has a chance of resolving the enormous conflict your shitty families have decided to make every other person’s problem, maybe you live in a deeply flawed society—or it’s just Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and at least you can be comforted by the aesthetics of the crappy circumstances you live in.
Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated "wild lawns."