Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet: Kitsch and Tears

by Chris Palmer

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Much of the Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet Petrarchan paraphernalia of stars and destinies and fates and fortune feels in itself hackneyed and uninteresting, merely providing impetus and stimulus for the play’s wonderful, hyperactive, inventive and improvisatory verbal and narrative style. It is quite different from the feelings that, for instance, Lear mobilises about promising, praying and swearing, or the physical power of the imagery (the phenomenal context) of disease, animals, wounds and insults in Coriolanus.

I think that Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, building on this, or by way of intuitive coincidence on the part of its makers, says something quite telling about our present condition. If camp is a matter of putting emotional investment, and artistic investment, into something that you know you can’t seriously believe in, something that is artificial, an image and no more, then this film’s campness says interesting things about the connection between our moment and that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There is a parallel between the relative hollowness of the play’s ideology of stars and fate, and the stylish dazzlement of the film’s surfaces, manners and clothes.

To put the point differently, the film says something about the roots of camp in superstition: superstition as a cultural mode, beginning in the period of romanticism and flourishing today.1 Why do so many people nowadays believe in astrology, varieties of new ageism, the mystical power of non-european religious traditions, paranoid explanations of the ills of the world, and so on? The answer comes pat: because they have nothing else to believe in and resort to a kind of aestheticized belief, a belief in quotation marks.

The imagery of the play is a mixture of Californian and Hispanic, Venice Beach and Veracruz, but both of them stirred through already existent media: mediatized. One is taking images from music videos (the pile of girls in bikinis rocking in the back of the car), or from Mexican telenovellas. Most vivid, in my opinion, is the use of catholic kitsch imagery — painted statues of the Virgin, candles, crosses, the devotional world of ‘holy cards’. Catholic kitsch can be found in Juliet’s bedroom; the candle and flower filled mausoleum; the gaudy, busy image-filled clothing of the Capulet and Montague boys; and, in grandiose form, in the two churches with huge concrete artistically sterile statues of Christ and of Mary (neither modern nor renaissance, but as it were ‘in the aftermath of fascism’ — Peronist, perhaps).2

Luhrmann no doubt dwells with such enthusiasm on this kind of thing because he likes it, but he can do so because characters whose feelings in the film do move us, live devoutly with it (Juliet does; so does Friar Lawrence), and he expects that we will get the point that this is what people have to live through nowadays — something that you must trust (in default of better?), but can’t believe in. One doesn’t choose to have garish images of the virgin in one’s bedroom (these are the residues of Juliet’s scarcely past childhood, like a collection of soft toys), or to say the stars are against one when things are going wrong. In order to find an outlet, or express oneself, these are what is on offer.

The decor and imagery of the film is popular and populist in a certain way, as everyone has noted, and it’s also reflective of a series of intuitions about youth. By talking briefly about these matters, we can get onto a topic which requires a different approach and eventually takes us further towards understanding of the film’s achievement: it’s phenomenality, its sensual-kinetic qualities.

Serious, WASP modern life hardly makes an appearance in Verona Beach; even the Montagues, who are fair and anglo, have adopted ghetto-blaster beach culture. There are none of the faceless white guys in suits who are so often the villains in contemporary action movies. Captain Prince (Prince Escalus in the play) is black. Even the people on TV screens who frame the story but are largely outside it are mostly black. The film is a kind of Deleuzian holiday from order and authority; it’s true that Verona is a very big place — this is felt in the film — and that it is overshadowed by those giant statues, but the emphasis is on a kind of childish/adolescent sensuality and instability.

As is very often the case in contemporary films (and Science Fiction) people play like children in a vast, alien environment that we cannot imagine them having had the seriousness or concentration to build. Juliet’s father has tantrums, her mother appears as if several different people in the course of the film’s quite extraordinary image of instability once you notice it. The film cleverly establishes the adolescence of Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio and the rest by offering us some vivid contrasting images of younger children in Friar Lawrence’s church: biddable, dedicated, obedient, neatly dressed. The suggestion is that it is in puberty that you live through toys, not in childhood.

The extraordinary colour sense of the film, purples, pinks and yellows, like those colours, not otherwise known to nature, that one finds in plastic toys; the sense of clothes as costumes, dress-ups; the fetishising of the guns with holy pictures inlaid in the grips, and of the cars; and of course the restless inability to keep still, the equivalent of that jiggling and tapping of the legs that you often find in adolescence: all this suggests not that the adolescents and adults in the film are childish, but that many of the feelings and habits of childhood (the time of toys and moods and hyperactivity) have shifted their location.

The film has a very strong and effective image system which, like almost all of the language of Shakespeare’s play, is based on drastic, exciting and clear cut contrasts. I suggest that this image system operates not only to classify and orchestrate the film’s splurge of images, but to get us somewhere as viewers, so that we end up feeling very intensely and openly.

The first pairing is wet and dry. Liquid: blood, sweat, tears, rain, the sea; the swimming pool and fish tank and pool in the garden which structure Romeo and Juliet‘s love affair, and provide some of Luhrmann’s freest and most charming images; and of course the pool into which the dying Tybalt falls, before rain drenches the scene, dropping first upon his pistol as it lies on the roadway, and the camera focuses on Romeo’s face down which both rain and streaks of blood run, as if they were tears, together with tears. We might add, perhaps, the sperm-like squiggles of the fireworks at the Capulets’ party. This liquidity connotes discharge of feeling or passion, release (dangerous or pleasurable — note the liquidity of the poisons), freedom.

One of the film’s great moments is the trickle of a tear down Romeo’s face after he is dead — and if you did not see this through the liberating mist of your own tears, as I did, then the film did not work for you. (Note how one weeps, if one weeps, with the characters, who are themselves crying — one does not weep in witnessing a sorrow which they do not themselves express in tears. The exception may be the death of Mercutio, but the characters are liberally running with blood at that point.) This is a Deleuzian liquidity, connoting libidinality spread over all, implying that the restless subconscious of the film loves change, shifts in position, recklessness, even if it gets you killed. Certainly we have a very fluid, sliding, swooping jumping camera viewing all this — a kind of nomadic camera, to use the Deleuzian word.

It is very possible to exaggerate these suggestions of libidinal liquidity, if one is led too far by a kind of postmodernist zeal. The beating up of Romeo that precedes the killing of Mercutio is nasty; Romeo’s hunch of grief and rage as he turns from the body of Mercutio to go after Tybalt is pathetic and young and disturbing; Romeo’s face seen through his window-screen as he pursues Tybalt is genuinely demonic.

Contrary to this imagery of fluidity and fluid movement, clearly, is the imagery of dryness. Dust (clearest in the scenes in Mantua), pollution (smog overhanging Verona Beach), concrete (driest of urban substances to the sense, because you can’t slide your hand down it), and, I would suggest, venturing into slightly different territory here, the old, used, trashy and rubbishy — the beat up old chairs that litter the Sycamore Grove where Tybalt beats up Romeo, the hairy unhealthy face of the apothecary who sells Romeo the poison, lots of litter and mess observed out of the corner of the camera’s eye.

There should be a semiotic dissolvent, a third term between the wet and the dry; this is to be found in the hard and dangerous yet also shiny and slick surfaces of cars and guns which participate in both the sensual fields I’ve just defined, and are clearly the narrative movers, the things that precipitate new scenes and deaths (it is interesting that we don’t see the knife, or was it a shard of broken glass, with which Tybalt stabbed Mercutio: a knife would be associated more directly with the flow of blood than is a gun). The guns are also the most clearly fetishised objects in the world of the film, so they are as it were punished for being fetishised by bringing about destructive dissolution. But this last point should not be overemphasised, since poison is also important, and it is the case that most things are fetishised in the world of the film.

The second field of contrast comes about because of the film’s way with faces and with flesh. We contrast the young and the joyful, or perhaps solely Romeo and Julietamong the young, with the old and the unhappy: faces wrinkled, rubicond, made up, blemished, distorted, uncomfortable to look at — especially in the violent close up with which the film tests every face, intrudes into every personal space. (Note how the credits include someone called an ‘aging artist’.)

Virtually everyone other than Romeo and Juliet looks a trifle grotesque, and this includes other young people: Benvolio with his expanses of facial flesh, Mercutio with his slight tendency to dribble, and Tybalt with his grinding of the teeth and the effort it costs him to speak so menacingly. Maybe the imposition of style on restless sensuality produces this strain. People very often look if caught and imaged, in one of those off-key seconds to which we are all liable, by someone like Diane Arbus. It’s by contrast with this that Romeo and Juliet in their moments of ardour and joy look so completely lovely. The flesh weighs on everyone else, even if they are successful or commandingly violent, everyone else, as if in some contemporary nightmare of anorexia/obesity, is either too lean or too fat.

It’s also true that though we see the faces of both Romeo and Juliet, not always in tension, sometimes smiling or tenderly puckering, in this remorseless close up which only the very handsome — which is equivalent to the very young and handsome in this film — can survive, we also see their whole bodies, moving freely, slipping through a medium, whether that be water, the bedsheets, or the various balustrades and trellises of the Capulets’ house. Given all this, one’s sympathy is unfailing, because so sensuous, so based on a kind of tactile visuality.

And Romeo and Juliet often wear simple clothes — Juliet almost always; we do not contemplate them solely as spectacles, at a certain visual distance, as we do the others — when we are not jammed uncomfortably up against their pores. We contemplate Romeo and Juliet as natural, innocent bodies. They are mostly dressed in white, silver or blue.

In fact, this singling out of the lovers at the level of the tactile/visual is so successful for me that it lessens the unbalancing effect of the fact that Luhrmann wants to look at Romeo a good deal more often than he wants to look at Juliet, and, for this and other reasons, cuts some of her best speeches late in the play — even though Cheryl Danes is the best speaker of verse among the younger actors in the play.

Nonetheless we might argue that in his attraction to Romeo he fails to capture the underlying structure of the drama, so important to a work that is so complex in its plot, and so busy in its verbal (Shakespeare) or visual-kinetic (Luhrmann) surface. This underlying structure surely has to do with the way in which Juliet becomes the hero, the decisive actor and expresser of feeling, in the second half of the play. I don’t think that Luhrmann catches that.

But his failure in this respect may not matter. Luhrmann’s strength is not structural command but improvisational rightness and audacity within a very unmistakable stylistic and sensual range. Consider the ending: we lose the horror of the Capulet vault, with Tybalt mouldering in his shroud (losing thereby Juliet’s best and most courageous speech in the play, the speech in which she contemplates wakening among the corpses) — the sort of thing one would have thought our director would go for — lose the death of Paris, lose the arrest of Friar Lawrence, lose the scene of cops and sirens that Luhrmann himself sets up and abandons.

But all this doesn’t matter since unstinted emotional observation carries it all. The way in which our knowledge that Juliet is still alive, Romeo, only just now dying, sees that Juliet is still alive and she sees that he is alive but dying, all this is translated into feeling (thence, into weeping) by touches such as the trembling of Juliet’s ring-finger (of course the ring-finger!), slight flutters of eyelashes, tremors of breath, is wonderful: a chance that redeems all else and a good visual-tactile equivalent for the slightly laborious complications of plot.

The film shifts from a degree of aggression towards its viewers to a complete forthcomingness, much more emotionally open. What does this outcome say about the film’s camp element, with its citational knowingness? Given that this film is so thorough-going in its inventive embrace of the postmodern, what business has it celebrating natural and innocent bodies and deploying unstinted emotional attentiveness? If this is a problem for postmodernist theorists and critics working away at it by rethinking the body, 3 we can only wish them a touch of Luhrmann’s verve and wit.


Chris Palmer teaches in the English Department at La Trobe University. This articles was first published in the December issue of the journal Meridian.

Notes and References

1. See Tobin Siebers, The Romantic Fantastic, Ithaca and London, Cornell UP, 1984.

2. The best example of this kind of edifice is probably Franco’s gigantic monument to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War, El Valle de los Caidos.

3. See Alison Caddick, ‘Feminist and Postmodern: Donna Haraway’s Cyborg’, Arena , 99/100, 1992, 112-128, and Lorraine Mortimer, ‘Will the New Woman Keep Some of the Old Organs?’, Arena Journal, 4, 1994/5, 105-125.

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