Romeo + Juliet + Baz Luhrmann: Reconsidered

Baz Luhrmann's films are not subtle. So why do I like Romeo + Juliet so much?

On the front of my Penguin edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet there’s a quote from Baz Luhrmann, the director of 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, that reads: “Romeo was your first ‘rebel without a cause’.”

Which is true. You know, as long as you don’t count the fact that he rebels against his family’s entrenched blood feud. And the casual cynicism of a society that has stopped believing in romantic attachment. And his friend’s misogynistic peer pressure. And his parents. And his faith. And the Bro Code.

Aside from all of those things that he vehemently rebels against on deeply held ideological grounds, yeah, he doesn’t have a cause.

To be fair though, I sort of get what Luhrmann is going for. After all, Romeo is a bit of a loner. A free spirit. Following his own desires. Willing to defy his society. It seems to position him as the origin for a whole character archetype. He’s the rebel. He’s James Dean. Han Solo. Fonzie. Maverick from Top Gun. Heck, he must have inspired all of them. In a way I even understand the impulse of the publishers to slap that sentiment on the cover. “Hey, that Romeo + Juliet film sure was popular,” they must have thought; “People love things that aren’t stuffy and old. Rebellion? Who doesn’t like that?”

To me, the play gives a distinctly different, and far more interesting spin on the character. Because contrary to this stereotype, Romeo has many causes. That’s precisely his problem.

Even before he meets Juliet, and before he realizes that all his hollow romantic simpering can have substance, he has a cause. He’s not just rebelling against “whatever you’ve got”: he believes in stuff. Oftentimes his ideology is undercooked, but it’s real. He believes in capital ‘L’ Love, even if it’s just a flimsy, cartoon version of it at first, symbolized by the unseen, swiftly-forgotten Rosaline. He believes in peace. He sees the meaningless, entrenched blood feud of his friends and family (literally without meaning: no root cause for this conflict is ever revealed) and he rebels against that, later even willing to die in the cause of love when Tybalt threatens him. He sees a world that glorifies hollow displays of masculinity and would rather spend his time moping alone or unburdening himself to a friar (because, the ‘rebel’ is best friends with a friar. Hardcore). For the entire play Romeo’s one defining trait is that despite being annoyingly emo about it, he “believes”: no matter how unpopular those causes might be.

Probably what Luhrmann meant was that like James Dean’s Jim, Romeo is a character that has rejected the bankrupt ideology of his facile parents. He’s a character whose personal convictions allow him to see through the empty redundancy of the status quo when a cycle of vengeance between two warring families has degenerated into a soul-numbing normality. Again, that’s a cause. Rebelling against a cycle of unceasing violence perpetuated by irrational hatred? That sounds like a cause to me.

So when you unpack this quote, what you end up with is a superficially persuasive sentiment that is substantively all but nonsensical. Which, now that I get to it, is pretty much my problem with all of Luhrmann’s work.

Because for me, Baz Luhrmann’s films (and this can serve as a pull quote review for every one of his movies) can be encapsulated in two words: Not. Subtle.

His grand meditation on doomed love, Moulin Rouge, had all the gravitas of a drunken snog at an ill-lit karaoke night, including the obnoxious strobe lights firing into your retinas. His The Great Gatsby was gaudy pretension, mawkishly trying to stuff an unjustified tragic love story into what is supposed to be a tale of artifice and pretense. Australia mimicked only the worst elements of Hollywood’s Golden Age, becoming a bloated, overwrought, and racially-condescending grind. To me, every one of his films play as maudlin, schizophrenic pastiches, consistently trading coherency for operatic hysteria.

So why do I like his Romeo + Juliet so much?

Because all that stuff is on display here. All his hammy, melodramatic excesses make an appearance. The “comedic” mugging for the camera (in the hyperkinetic introductory fight scene at the petrol station Jamie Kennedy seems to think he’s playing a cowardly basset hound in a Looney Tunes short). The frenetic smash cut edits. The overwrought, saccharine score. The fast motion. Crazy costuming. The signature Luhrmann set decoration of kitsch, neon-soaked bric-a-brac, like someone hosting a rave party in their grandmother’s attic. The irrational amounts of candles. Of course, it’s here that he discovered the tragic love story archetype he has been mining with diminishing returns in every film since.

Yet, here it all works. Here Luhrmann’s signature style is married perfectly with his subject matter, with the quirks and failings that mar his other films this time actually elevating the themes of the original text.

One might be tempted to say that Shakespeare’s tight plotting and characterization make it near impossible to screw up, but as anyone who has ever sat through a bad production of Shakespeare can attest, it can be done. Luhrmann’s version certainly has its detractors. Luhrmann makes cuts — controversially drastic cuts, in fact — to the text. It’s estimated that only about 40 percent of the original text survives the adaptation. Arguably essential moments are expunged, such as Romeo’s fight with and murder of Paris, and the ambiguous ending of the parents “settling” their feud. He rearranges scenes; he swaps out lines. He uses the bard’s text as a temp track that he can sample from and remix. Personally, I think the spirit of the play survives, with much of the cut material resurfacing in the visual imagery.

Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tale that is meant to be felt. It’s a play about the first burnings of lustful desire. Young love. Stupid, irrational adoration. When it feels like the whole world will burn up if you cannot be together. When time itself seems to have carved out a little space for you to live inside. It’s about loss. Inconsolable, incomprehensible loss. When the weight of all human happiness rests on something as inconsequential as a delayed letter.

For every teenager who has ever stared a hole in their phone waiting for a text reply from that someone they long for. For all the young lovers who have known the electricity of sneaking around behind their parents’ disapproving backs. For everyone who has been alone in their sorrow, feeling the universe cave into a tomb when their heart was broken. Shakespeare literalizes all of it. He not only taps into these fears, he gives them substance and weight.

For all of his other cinematic belly flops, here Luhrmann’s operatic hysterics soar. We get locked in the perspective of these overheated teenagers. We feel all their giddy excess and thunderous disappointments as though, like them, feeling all these emotions for the first time.

Their parents become a blur of inconsequential nonsense in the background, blasting in and out of the young lovers’ lives in order to spout contradictory inanities and bark irrational orders. They are loud and hypocritical, just as they should be. The nurse is a loveable doof: all banalities and base cravings. The Montague and Capulet boys are braying thugs, and the friar, in yet another striking performance by Pete Postlethwaite, is all bluster and false hope, condemning Romeo as a horny teen one minute and agreeing to marry him off to a girl he barely knows the next.

Luhrmann’s aesthetics are equally on point. His sand-blasted, decayed urban sprawl nicely captures the stately desiccation of a city wracked by generations of gang violence. It becomes a space in which symbols of divine beauty and grace are emptied of meaning to become gauche decoration; where the image of the Mother Mary engraved on the handle of a gun perfectly encapsulates the play’s central theme of love and war: love perverted by war; war perpetuated by love.

You feel the weariness that Shakespeare loaded into his narrative, that these families have been playing out this same tired grudge for so long that it no longer even functions as back story. It’s no wonder Luhrmann makes one of the signature locations in the film — the place that Mercutio is killed and where the narrative tilts irreversibly from comedy to tragedy — the crumbling shell of a stage, rotting on the beach.

He likewise nicely captures Romeo’s early, insufferable pretentiousness. In the film, Romeo is introduced sitting alone on the beach, smoking, filling a journal with adolescent poetry. Much as Ewan McGreggor’s character in Moulin Rouge thinks that “love” means spouting greeting card clichés to a tune, I’m not entirely convinced that Luhrmann realizes that Romeo’s verses here are meant to be corny. His Romeo emotes all of this drivel as though it is the pure manna of unfettered truth, but even this works perfectly with the themes of the play.

Of course Romeo would pose himself on the beach beneath a crumbling arch, smoking artfully, watching the sun burn over the horizon, all affectation and theatricality. The guy who keeps yammering on about “love’s transgression”, and love as “a smoke made of the fume of sighs …. a sea nourished with lover’s tears”, he would do exactly that. Shakespeare is presenting the early, mooning Romeo as an angsty twit, spewing hollow Petrarchan verse. Just as Benvolio waves him away in the play, here in the film it gets poured into a notebook thankfully no one will have to read.

Luhrmann actually manages to use clichés in order to upend their familiar banality. By placing Romeo and Juliet into costumes when they first meet (Romeo the knight in plastic armour; Juliet the pure white angel) we are primed to read them into roles that are almost immediately transcended. Romeo is hardly the chivalric warrior, and Juliet exhibits a profoundly more complex understanding of human rationality and desire than a pair of tiny strap-on wings would imply.

Most important, back when he made Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann had seemingly not yet forgotten how to use stillness. He was willing to de-clutter the screen and allow for moments of meaningful quiet.

Stillness comes to be a recurring motif throughout the central romance. When we first see Juliet she is in the bath, plunged face first into the sensory tranquility of an underwater shot. She is at peace in this isolation; the chaos of the family that longs to dress her up and parade her around momentarily reduced to a distant murmur.

When she and Romeo first see each other it’s a flirtatious stare through a glass fish tank, all darting eyes and teasing smiles, and played, blissfully, without chatter. They awake from their one night together as a wedded couple into silence. Later, when they meet each other again in Juliet’s tomb, on the last bed they will share together, Luhrmann lets a ghastlier quiet creep in, giving each creak and click of that lonely space sound like a cannon.

As Luhrmann’s version shows: the genius of Shakespeare’s original work is its deconstruction of language itself. For a play written by the greatest poet, speech is ironically devoid of meaning in this play. This, famously, is the play in which Juliet questions whether a rose would smell as sweet if it were called by another name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes,

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;

And for thy name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself. (II.2.43-9)

Names, she says, are arbitrary, only given meaning in their application, and she invites Romeo to join her in a namelessness free from prejudice and expectation.

This is consistently Juliet’s role. As a 13-year-old woman growing up in a patriarchal nightmare, unlike everyone else around her, she can see through the empty rhetoric of her society, calling its accepted ‘truths’ into question. She balks at the vulgarity of being married off like property to a man she does not know, she tries (unsuccessfully) to reason with her parents when they accuse her of “disobeying” them, and she undercuts Paris’ over-familiarity with her. She even chastises Romeo when he starts praising her with empty compliments and hollow professions of love. When he tries to slather her with more of the wet poetry he was wasting on Rosaline, she stops him:

Romeo: Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,

That tips with silver all these fruit tree tops –

Juliet: O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.107-11)

She cuts through all of his crap (his proclamations of love to the stars and the moon) and re-educates him in a truer affection. One that goes unspoken, and is professed in action, not declaration. An eternal, unspoken, unspeakable love.

It’s why Luhrmann’s willingness to slow his film down, suspending his lovers in a transitory quietude, works so well. His Juliet (the sublime Claire Danes, long before she was trapped in the sloppy, inflammatory fever dream of Homeland) embodies this philosophical serenity, re-educating the overeager Romeo (an energetic Leonardo DiCaprio, long before he was assaulted by a bear), and the solace they find in each other contrasts powerfully with the frenetic hostility everywhere else in the film.

Which brings me to what I think is Luhrmann’s greatest achievement: his balcony scene. Again, we see him playing with cliché, using his audience’s familiarity with the scene to transform it into something more. We see Romeo creeping up the walls, earnestly setting up his most famous metaphor:

But Soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon… (II.1.44-6)

He’s so busy working himself into a poetic state — Juliet is light; Juliet is the dawn of a new day; she’s a life-giving spring — and we are so trained to see this moment as the swelling prologue to Romeo and Juliet’s reunion, that when it is instead the nurse’s head that emerges from the curtains, blowing all that romanticized projection apart, both Romeo and the audience are invited to shake off their presumptions and approach this story fresh.

Here, Juliet is not elevated up on some pedestal, she’s just taken the elevator to the ground; and Romeo is not some dashing beau, he’s tangled himself up in the Christmas lights. We are able to witness their flirtation not as the catalogue of two lovers fated to meet and die to satisfy an ancient blood feud, but as the communion of two alienated souls who speak to each other in a way that their families literally do not yet have the language to comprehend.

They’re not rebels without causes, no matter what Luhrmann was aiming for with that quote, although it’s true to say that what they believe in cannot be quantified, or categorized, or contained. It eclipses language and expectations, carving itself out a space beyond the rote familiarity of names and oaths and honor, all of which, both play and movie reveal, have already been debased through meaningless repetition.