For all of its use of iambic pentameter, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is often – and unfortunately – lumped into the teen genre of films. This is undoubtedly because Romeo + Juliet (1996) (note the very hip “+”) was released during the peak of mid-1990s Leonardo DiCaprio mania – I should know I was in high school at the time and if you didn’t have DiCaprio’s pretty boy visage adorning your files and notebooks, you were most strange indeed. DiCaprio aside, it is a film that acquainted viewers – teenagers and adults alike – with postmodernism before many of them even knew what the term meant. Part of Luhrmann’s red curtain trilogy, which also includes Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge (2001), Romeo + Juliet is definitely the standout, perfectly fusing his interests in theatre and cinema.
It’s called red curtain because that’s just a simple way of saying it is theatricalized cinema. Now this theatrical cinematic language has very direct roots in the films of the thirties and forties. This is a time when we’re looking at films like Citizen Kane, Singing in the Rain, Top Hat. The cinema of that period is not naturalistic. The mark of how artistic it is isn’t based on how real it appears. Your response is based on how high the art is in the artifice. It’s what I call the big lie to reveal the big truth. It’s clearly a heightened cinematic language…. Naturalism tends to put the audience to sleep. It invites you to forget yourself and believe that you’re looking though a keyhole into a room and observing the reality of someone’s life.
– Baz Luhrmann
Just about everyone knows the story of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, but Luhrmann’s contemporary remake involves a hyperreal pastiche of different film genres, garish colours, highly self-conscious cinematographic techniques, clever allusions to the details of the original play and an onslaught of pop culture references. Extremely over the top and kinetic viewing, Luhrmann himself described it as “like a Busby Berkley musical on acid.” Naturally, Romeo + Juliet has been criticised for appropriating MTV editing clichés and stylistic quirks. Roger Ebert, who is always the first person I turn to for cinematic opinions, hated it and claimed that, “The desperation with which it tries to ‘update’ the play and make it ‘relevant’ is greatly depressing.”
Romeo + Juliet recently returned to my attention when it was referred to by a friend as being “very dated.” Re-watching it again I found that some scenes that I had previously found electrifying – most notably the opening sequence in the gas station featured above – seemed slightly…tacky. That being said, the film is unapologetically camp, and embracing a certain level of tackiness is bound up with the theatricality of Susan Sontag’s conception of camp. Personally, I think Ebert may be a little harsh in his judgment: it is the hallucinatory sequences and crazy aesthetics of Luhrmann’s “update” that make it worth watching. If you can look behind the performances of DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the film plays with iconography in weird and wonderful ways – the use of religious imagery, in particular, undergoes a somewhat sacrilegious grunge rave party makeover.
I am always surprised when the generation below mine claim to have not seen this film because it seems so entrenched in the collective teenage psyche to which I was a part. It may not be the Romeo and Juliet that traditionalists long for, but it is – surprisingly – a document of the period in which it was made, capturing the Hawaiian shirts, bad haircuts, teen angst soundtrack and drug culture of the decade. That, for me, is one of the surprising outcomes of watching Romeo + Juliet so many years after its original release – it’s not merely an adaptation, but a strange socio-historical record of youth culture as inscribed by Lurhmann’s unique film language.