Baz Luhrmann – Analysis of the Red Curtain Trilogy
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The Red Curtain Trilogy, upon first thought, could simply be seen as a marketing tool by Baz Luhrmann and the team at Bazmark – put your three popular films in a box set with some added features and set it upon the DVD buying audience. However, upon further inspection, the three films are not boxed together simply for marketing purposes, or just by the fact they have the same director and production team – Simply Ballroom, William Shakespeares Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge! all have underlying themes and myths that link them together. This essay will seek to discuss the social and aesthetic themes that run through the Red Curtain Trilogy. The themes will be compared and contrasted between the three films.
When explaining the ‘trilogy’, Lurhmann addresses the first theme that runs through them – it in fact relates not to any social or aesthetic theme, but the inspiration to elements of their storylines.
“The ‘Red Curtain’ style that defines our filmmaking comprises several distinct storytelling choices. A simple, even naïve story based on a primary myth is set in a heightened or created world that is at once familiar yet exotic, distant. Each of the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy has a device which awakens the audience to the experience and the storyteller’s presence, encouraging them to be constantly aware that they are in fact watching a film. In ‘Strictly Ballroom’ dance is the device, the actors literally dance out the scenes. In ‘Romeo+Juliet’ it is Shakespeare’s heightened 400-year-old language. In ‘Moulin Rouge’, our ultimate ‘Red Curtain’ gesture, music and song is the device that releases us from a naturalistic world.” (Baz Lurhmann – www.clubmoulinrouge.com)
The primary myths that Luhrmann alludes to are actually easy to understand once brought to light. In Strictly Ballroom, the myth is David and Goliath, along with a second theme of the ‘Ugly Duckling’. Romeo+Juliet contains the fanciful myth of youthful love in conflict with society. The underlying myth in Moulin Rouge! is the myth of Orpheus. One that is not very well known, the myth of Orpheus tells of the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. Orpheus inherited from his mother the power to enchant every living creature with his music. When his love, Eurydice, was killed he descended into the Underworld to plead for her return. Orpheus enchanted Hades, the monarch of the Underworld, with his music and was permitted to leave with Eurydice. But there was one condition: on his journey back to the world above, Orpheus must lead Eurydice and not look back to see if she followed. Just as he reached the entrance to the Upperworld, fear overpowered him and he turned to see if she followed, thus losing Eurydice forever (www.clubmoulinrouge .com). These mythical themes are then highlighted by the social themes that run through the three films – family, status, origin, social figures and love.
On the surface, Strictly Ballroom could be seen as strictly superficial. But its colourful images are only highlighted by the mixture of fractured and involved relationships that drive the characters.
One of the most integral plots in the film is the relationship between lead character Scott (Paul Mercurio) and his family. The family is depicted as an unhappy one – a rebellious son, a broken down mother, a father who is immersed in his own world – in fact, the most grounded family member is that of Scott’s younger sister, who seems destined to look on as her family members continue on a destructive path. The four members of the Hastings family seem alienated, not only from each other, but from the world outside of ballroom dancing – their whole life is dancing, training and competitions. On the contrary, Scott’s love interest, Fran (Tara Morice), comes from a large Spanish family, who seem warm, loving and happy to be involved in each others lives.
Romeo & Juliet, however, highlights two families that are at war, not only with each other, but within themselves. Both families (the Montagues and the Capulets), like the Hastings’, practically seem to live in other family members pockets – involved in each others lives in so many ways. And, likewise, the children in the families – Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes), and similarly in Strictly Ballroom with Scott and Fran – defy their family members by persuing a relationship with each other. Also similar are the drives of each of the families in both films. Survival in the dance world drives the Hastings, whereas hatred, survival for life and respect for the family name drives the Montagues and Capulets – where ultimately, they pay the price with the lives of their kin. Moulin Rouge! on the other hand, has very little mention of family, or even their impact on the lead characters lives – in this respect, it is different to the other two films. The slight reference is to Ewan McGregor’s Christian’s father belittling his wishes to travel to Paris to become a part of the bohemian society. Thus, it is his father’s disapproval that drives Christain to embrace this new life all the more wholeheartedly.
One element that is evident in Moulin Rouge! is the importance of status and wealth of the characters. The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is a wealthy man, with the power to make or break the Moulin Rouge. Satine (Nicole Kidman) is encouraged to seduce the wealthy man – but instead falls in love with the penniless Christian, resulting in the threat of demise for not only the Moulin Rouge, but also the three involved in the love triangle. It is obvious in the film that the character of the rich Duke is treated with little more than disdain, while the poor bohemians, like Christian, are portrayed as likeable – the poor overcoming the rich in popularity. In relation to the other films, where Moulin Rouge! can be seen as rich man, poor man, Romeo & Juliet is rich man, rich man.
The importance of status and wealth is relevant, not because of a love between two people of opposite social classes, but because of a love between two people whose wealthy families are involved in a feud that stems from the need of power, wealth and superiority. The difference of status does not apply in this film – but its impact on the families feud affects even the youngest family members – in this case, Romeo and Juliet. Strictly Ballroom also features struggles involved with stature – however, it is not wealth that defines this stature, but rather the level of competency within the ballroom dancing circles. Beginners are treated with nothing more than amusement, and are not deemed good enough to dance with someone of a more professional and accomplished stature. Perhaps the character with the most ‘stature’ is that of Barry Fyfe (Bill Hunter), president of Dance Australia. Ignorant of anyone who isn’t qualified, he is more focused on himself than the good of the dancing establishment and its dancers – and he is especially prejudiced against Scott and his need to dance something different to everything he has been taught.
This need to be different fuels Scott’s relationship with Fran – and ultimately it is her Spanish heritage that inspires his dancing. Multi-racial elements are introduced into the film in the form of Fran and her extended family. With the help of her family, and their traditions, Scott is transformed into a more accepting person and an inspired dancer. In Romeo & Juliet, many characters have been adapted to become Hispanic – a result of the setting, which has the feeling of Miami Beach meets South America – and Tibult, Romeo’s best friend, is now of African American descent. What is interesting in the two films, is that there is no racial prejudice. Of course, this would have been impossible anyway in Romeo & Juliet, what with staying true to the word of Shakespeare, but Fran’s heritage is not alluded to by Scott’s family – their main
prejudice against her is her lack of dancing ‘skill’. Moulin Rouge! also contains characters of different descent – while many are Anglo-Saxon, there are quite a few minor characters of, once again, African American and Hispanic descendants – along with The Unconcious Argentinian (Jacek Koman), who provides moments of ‘comic-relief’ (along with John Leguizamo’s Toulouse Lautrec). Like the other two films, no prejudice is shown to a person of a different descent. Also, in Moulin Rouge! it is evident that there is a strong Indian influence to some costumes and set design – however, there are no characters of Indian descent.
What is also evident in the three films are the appearance of ‘underworld’ figures. In Moulin Rouge!, Satine and the other dancers at the Moulin Rouge are courtesans – or prostitutes – and Zigler (Jim Broadbent) their version of a ‘pimp’. Romeo &Juliet contains a scene where Tibult dresses up, along with others, and performs a drag queen act. And, although not as obvious or extreme as the other two films, Strictly Ballroom’s Barry Fyfe is the eternal con man, running the show and fixing the competitions to his own benefit.
However, more than any other theme discussed, the theme of love is by far the most important and most integral to each of the three films. Love drives the entire films stories – without the love of the lead characters, nothing else matters. The love of Scott and Fran in Strictly Ballroom overcomes dancing incompetence, family disapproval and interference from higher powers (ie. Barry Fyfe). Romeo and Juliet’s love leads to them dying for each other in the face of adversity and disapproval, ultimately ending the feud between the families, which had caused them to take their lives. Christian and Satine overcome The Duke, Zigler, the constraints of the Moulin Rouge and her ‘work’ to find love. But the three films do not share a belief of ‘all you need is love’ – love may conquer all, but it does not ensure a happy ending – especially as Scott and Fran are the only couple together – alive – by the end of the film. Death ultimately steals away the other couples happiness.
Social themes are not the only resemblances throughout the three films. In fact, their aesthetic themes are obviously the defining factor that binds the trilogy together. The common aesthetic themes include costumes, art direction and set design and the use of music as a defining feature.
When in discussion with his art department about the films, Luhrmann coined a term that inspired and gave complete creative control out of the normal film realm to all three of his movies – “instead of artificial reality, it’s real artificiality”(Luhrmann, Behind the Red Curtain DVD). The intention for the viewer is not to believe they are watching ‘real life’, but to acknowledge that they are not.
The costumes in the films highlight this. Catherine Martin explains the costume design in Luhrmanns first film Strictly Ballroom as “Intensely colorful and diabolically beautiful.” The general design for this movie capitalizes on the exceptionally vulgar but extraordinarily beautiful and glamorous world of ballroom dancing. Each of the female ballroom gowns consisted of over 40 meters of fabric, and Scott’s matador jacket took three weeks to make (Martin, Behind the Red Curtain DVD). Yet each of these designs were particular to the film to assist in creating the extremely colorful look that was required for the film.
In Luhrmanns’ second film William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet costume designer Kim Barret had a big challenge on her plate. While the set designers had to create an Elizabethan world out of twentieth century image collages, Kim Barret had to dress the characters to fit somewhere in-between all of this. In this film guns were not only weapons but also ornamental accessories. The Montague’s were dressed in Hawaiian shirts and slack pants while also being adorned in religious iconography. They rejected the bulletproof vests, while each fabric was specific to each character. The Capulets were dressed based on the idea of a flamenco/peacock. These characters wore bulletproof vests adorned with religious iconography; these decorative vests became essential to the Capulet wardrobe. The Capulet gang had decorative tattoos and wore decorative yet threatening jewelry (Barret, Behind the Red Curtain DVD).
While the costumes for Romeo & Juliet weren’t as bright and over-the-top as Strictly Ballroom, they did however have the similar effect in which they assisted in creating the world and atmosphere within the movie, making it look credible. In the scene where Romeo & Juliet first meet they are dressed as an angel and knight. Kim Barret explains that the original text provided the inspiration behind the costuming choices. In the script Romeo calls Juliet his Angel and Romeo is Juliet’s Knight in Shining Armour (Barrett, Behind the Red Curtain DVD). While
Strictly Ballroom had to be full of bright and beautiful costumes this film on the other hand had to costumed to fit somewhere in-between a twentieth century beach culture while also encompassing the Elizabethan culture (i.e. the religious iconography).
The costuming for Luhrmanns final red curtain film was, like Romeo & Juliet, a matter of trying to combine history and present – Moulin Rouge was set in nineteenth century Paris. In this film there were 2625 handmade costumes, the thirty can-can dresses had five or six ruffles measuring 20 meters each, around 120 meters of ruffle for each skirt. Both the director and designers were passionately committed to re-examining the approach usually applied to the design of period costumes. Although they based all their costume choices on painstaking historical research it didn’t always pan out. A dilemma faced by the costume designers was, after researching they found out that to be historically accurate the can-can girls had to wear no underwear. To overcome this slight issue they decided to show lots of skin, but to have the colors arrayed so that when the skirts were lifted up their pants resembled a center of a flower. They decided it was more important to convey the story, the characters and the exuberant world of the Moulin Rouge in the clearest way possible rather than with pedantic historical accuracy (Luhrmann, 2001).
There was however one rule handed over to the costuming department- all the costume details, elements of apparel and materials had to have existed in the 19th century, but they could use them out of context. The character of Satine played by Nicole Kidman was often dressed through means of intertextual references of historic Hollywood movies. The bus stop costume worn by Marilyn Monroe was actually the inspiration behind the black diamond dress worn by Satine (Luhrmann, Behind the Red Curtain DVD). The costuming for Moulin Rouge is similar to Strictly Ballroom in the aspect where the costume designers were aiming at creating a bright and beautiful world with the costumes. The costumes in both these movies are critical to the film, as the clothes visually aid in creating the world in which the film plays out. Whilst similar to Strictly Ballroom with its visual presentation, the costuming was also similar to Romeo & Juliet in where they had the difficult task to design costumes to match a period of history (19th Century Paris and the Elizabethan era), whilst updating them to a modern version while keeping in accord not to lose the historic significance.
Choreography in Strictly Ballroom was critical to the story – it is based on the world of ballroom dancing and the story is told through the tremendously visual element of dance. Each of the significant emotional scenes was ‘danced’ out for the audience. The use of dancing was used to great effect to highlight the narrative in this movie (Luhrmann, Behind the Red Curtain DVD). Different to the other two films, Strictly Ballroom’s dance scenes not only drive the story, but they also drive the character of Scott – it highlights his need to be different. “In a world where winning means everything, Scott learns how hollow victory can be if the price is stifling creativity” (http://movie-reviews.colossus. net/ movies/s/strictly.html).
This creativity that is stifled, then realised, is showcased through dance. Unlike Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet was not a dance film, despite this fact a choreographer was used in a few key scenes. The party scene was obviously choreographed, but a scene that was also choreographed was the gas station/gunfight scene. The character of Tibult who was costumed on the idea of a peacock/flamenco was also choreographed during this scene. When he draws out his gun he is in reality dancing the flamenco – choreographer of all three films, John O’Connell, described his character as a matador with guns (O’Connell, Behind the Red Curtain DVD).
While Moulin Rouge was still in the draft stages, choreographer John O’Connell was researching musicals and the can-can. He found inspiration with the wit and imagination, a playfulness and joy that disappeared with later musicals. He also looked at hundreds of Bollywood movies that he thought captured the essence of the forties and fifties Hollywood musicals. The Choreography throughout Moulin Rogue pays witty homage to iconic musical and dance styles: from Bollywood for the Hindu ‘Spectacular Spectacular’ to Hello Dolly for the Hollywood style kicklines of ‘Like a Virgin’ (Luhrmann, 2001). The choreography for Moulin Rouge is similar to Strictly Ballroom, as John O’Connell had to research certain types of dances for both movies. Each of these films had to contain specific dance which the choreographer added his own interpretation. Romeo & Juliet however is the odd one out; the use of choreography was used, not for narrative purposes, but mainly to stylize the characters.
The set design of Strictly Ballroom was pretty straight forward the scenes were either shot inside a hall, in a middle class suburban home and in the dingy streets of Sydney. They had to create a great scale world on a low budget. The set design was pretty simple and just had to assist in creating the world of Ballroom dancing inside the dance halls and then in the dingy streets of Sydney where Scott and Fran are free from the constraints of Ballroom dancing (Behind the Red Curtain DVD). Even scenes that needed to be stylised were done so on a low budget – the ‘flashback’ scene, when Scott is told about his parents dancing, was originally meant to be stylish, but due to budget restraints, the final product is slightly ‘tacky’ – but intentionally so (Behind the Red Curtain DVD). The final competition was filmed during an actual ballroom competition – in the hour long lunch break. Seriously over schedule, people at the competition became frustrated and left – leaving them with a relatively empty arena. In order to produce the effect of people in the crowd, members of the art department ran around the arena, throwing colourful shirts over seats (Behind the Red Curtain DVD).
Romeo & Juliet on the other hand had the difficult task of being in the twentieth century beach and corporate world, but also containing elements of the Elizabethan world. Lurhmann chose to place this updated version in a new Verona, where Miami beach became one with South America (Behind the Red Curtain DVD) and overcame the centuries by, where possible, placing religious iconography – the huge Jesus statue, etc. The set designers also had to come up with twentieth century equivalents to the Elizabethan world, such an example was instead of having the town center, and they had to place the opening battle scene in a gas station (Behind the Red Curtain DVD). The set design for Moulin Rouge was to find a way to reveal 19th century Paris and the Moulin Rouge as it may have felt to its audience then – sexy, energetic and bursting as the seams with all things bohemian and modern. The design task was to create a place where breaking out into song would feel natural (Luhrmann, 2001).
The art direction team also felt it was important that they include elements that were at the original Moulin Rouge – including the themed rooms (ie the Gothic Tower) and the 6 foot Elephant (which, at the real Moulin Rouge, had a gentleman’s only club in its belly) (Luhrmann, 2001). The end result was complex, diverse – and huge in scale compared to the other two films. It is interesting to note that all of Moulin Rouge! was filmed on sound stages, with no outdoor shoots (‘Making of Moulin Rouge’ HBO featurette, Moulin Rouge! DVD). Each of the films designs are individual and specific to each movie, they each assist in helping the narrative along, whilst also creating the world in which the film can play out.
Baz Luhrmann has produced three award winning (see appendix A) films, that are similar yet different. The three films are each based on a myth, on obsession, on society, on love. They have similarities that are hard to ignore. But the three films deal with these issues in different ways, ultimately having different outcomes for their lead, and supporting, characters. Yet it remains that in each of his films, Luhrmann has aimed at creating a heightened world that is theatrical and strange, but yet familiar to audiences.