Contrary to the ascription on the theatrical one-sheet, Romeo + Juliet is more a product of Baz Luhrmann’s artistic sensibilities than William Shakespeare’s, transposing the Elizabethan English of “The Bard” onto the sun-damaged surf of a crumbling California, emphasizing the melodiousness of the text through expeditious editing and intentionally gaudy set dressing. Luhrmann’s flamboyant physicality and spectrum of color is almost brutish in its creative license, employing the civil unrest of the Los Angeles riots and epidemic of gang violence as a point of reference for the rivalry between the Montague and Capulet families, masking a glorification of silver-plated weaponry beneath the guise of social activism. The visuals do bear a certain allure, capturing the vividness of Mexican Folk Art and mystique of religious iconography, but every passage of beauty is smothered beneath a heavy-handed mélange of sight and sound, bewildering the viewer through its disarray and lack of restraint.
The film opens in fierce montage, cycling through its cast of characters by way of magazine cover and newscast, utilizing the anchor as a replacement for Shakespeare’s Chorus, reinforcing the script through large print intertitles. We enter the narrative at a gas station, the camera rapidly shifting from the boot heels to gun butts of a pair of rival gangs, each clamoring for respect through the brandishing of firearms and the pomp of the plainly anachronistic dialogue. The exaggerated appearances of the characters and abrupt camera zooms are cartoonish, imparting levity onto Verona Beach’s criminal element through shocks of neon hair and customized lowriders, each glossed in coats of color better suited for a scoop of sorbet.
Christian imagery is prevalent, as it was in Shakespeare’s work, characterized by extensive overhead shots of al fresco statues, many inspired by Christ the Redeemer or functioning as reminder of the crucifixion. Luhrmann intends to parallel the suffering of the Christian messiah to the eponymous lovers, a lofty goal that he nearly accomplishes through directorial bombast and the superb application of rousing music, both classic and contemporary. The integration of diegetic and nondiegetic sound is rather exhilarating, transforming the masquerade ball at the Capulet’s mansion from stuffy social affair to choreographed chorus line, accelerating the footage to emphasize the feverish twirling of the performers.
Scenes of revelry also sport a certain sexual ambiguity, one that feels rather prescient considering our current cultural debate on the politics of gender and identity, especially when bookended by passages of brutality. Luhrmann’s juxtaposition of the ravishing and savage is compelling, particularly within the construct of a mainstream adaptation, but Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was far more subversive and had yet to fade from memory, its confidence fostering a cogent marriage of romance and media satire. Romeo + Juliet isn’t as neatly threaded, stumbling beneath an editorial incongruity that confuses rather than captivates, trammeling the impact of the photographic majesty.
The solemnity of the ironic conclusion survives unscathed, boasting a magical, illusory quality in the kaleidoscopic color and soft candlelight that illuminate the couple’s altar-bound coffin. As Liebestod pervades the soundtrack and the camera slowly scans the tomb from overhead, we see a flashback of the couple embracing underwater, sharing an impassioned kiss. It’s a subtle denouement to an otherwise garish and impetuous work, one plagued by a reckless abandon that confuses excess and technical prowess for transcendence.
Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox, 1996)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by William Shakespeare (play), Craig Pearce (screenplay) and Baz Luhrmann (screenplay)
Photographed by Donald M. McAlpine