Introduction as a Tool for Theatricality: The Use of Red Curtain Aesthetic in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
by Chloe Varenhorst
Baz Luhrmann’s masterful use of Red Curtain Aesthetic throughout his 1996 box-office hit Romeo + Juliet redefined Shakespeare for the modern era. However, the entire film does not completely represent this captivating aesthetic and for good reason. Through a deliberate use of bland aesthetic and stagnant exposition, Luhrmann’s utilizes the first chorus of Romeo + Juliet as a tool to lower expectations for a spectacular reveal. Though his already flamboyant presentation proves potent, a boring introduction greatly increases the power of the second chorus by mere comparison. Despite the contrast between the two choruses, Luhrmann consciously maintains a sense of continuity between the disparate introductions by using subtle thematic overlap and shared content from the film. With minimal use of visual and auditory stimuli in the first chorus of the film, Luhrmann anesthetizes his audience only to barge in immediately with the second chorus’s vigor, which he maintains throughout the movie, effectively redefining the modern image of Shakespeare on the silver screen.
Keywords: Red Curtain Aesthetic, Metatheatre, Romeo and Juliet, Introductory Presentation, film, Shakespeare
When producing a work of Shakespeare in film, the challenge of refreshing a classic piece of literature in a new medium must be met and overcome in order to create a movie worth watching. This challenge grows with the familiarity of the play, and Romeo and Juliet presents perhaps the biggest obstacle for originality in the world of Shakespeare. Baz Luhrmann meets this challenge in his 1996 box-office hit Romeo + Juliet by keeping the majority of the text while establishing a completely new presentation. Though the actors speak in an Early Modern English dialect, they do so in an engineered atmosphere of modern aesthetics and extravagance, dubbed the Red Curtain Aesthetic. As explained by Luhrmann himself, the Red Curtain Aesthetic requires a story already known to the audience set within a heightened, created world and an engaging element, iambic pentameter in the case of Romeo + Juliet (Red Curtain Trilogy). The atypical combination of antiquated dialect and modern aesthetic effectively eliminates any semblance of realism, forcing the audience into acute awareness that they are watching something engineered for the silver screen. The only notable exception to this flashy approach comes in the form of the first chorus, which instantly sedates the audience only to assail viewers with a brazen second rendition of the chorus. When compared to the rest of the film, the first chorus seems rather bland and out of place in a mind-bending world of absolute pomp. However, the noticeable effort to maintain continuity between the disparate introductions demonstrates intent on Luhrmann’s part to subdue the audience before the spectacle actually begins. With minimal use of visual and auditory stimuli in the first chorus of the film, Luhrmann establishes an anesthetized mood only to barge in immediately with the second chorus’s extravagance, which he maintains throughout the movie, thus modernizing the image of Shakespeare on the silver screen.
Despite the short duration of the first chorus, its chronological placement in relation to the whole film as well as its subdued tone are significant. The scene opens with an unmoving television in the distance with the name of the production company in white accompanied by complete silence. Shortly, the screen cuts to a reporter narrating the prologue with a static image of Romeo’s wedding band from later in the movie. As the narration continues, the reporter’s inflection remains even and detached, giving the impression that she is reading directly from a teleprompter. Even though the news is tragic, the newscaster’s tone depicts “the false friendly attitude in which we are accustomed to hearing the news of modern life tragedy” (133-134). No music accompanies the voice-over, and even the distant television is devoid of the noise and static expected from such dated technology. Aside from the even reading of the play’s chorus, no other auditory stimuli are present to engage the audience. After the name of the production company has left the screen, the television begins to move forward, concurrent with the beginning of the narration. Eventually the television halts in the foreground and the lethargy of the movement proves infuriating when combined with the newscaster’s lackluster delivery of the dialogue. Without any auditory stimuli cultivating interest, acceleration, or audience participation, the first chorus fails to incite the excitement attached to Baz Luhrmann’s name. If not for the elaborate language of the text, there would be nothing compelling this scene due to the deliberately monotonous tone of the first chorus.
Minimalist aesthetics and general lack of visual stimuli contribute to the aberrant monotony of the first chorus as well. The television that opens the movie lacks any color other than the dark brown trim dividing two shades of black around the screen. When the image changes to the reporter, the use of color proves sparse, and the few colors presented are muted and unremarkable. Though the reporter wears a red outfit, it adds little color to the image due to its dull shading and the fact that the majority of the body has been cut out of the shot. In fact, the majority of the color on the television screen is gray from the background and the image of the ring in the upper right. Even the bright blue background in the picture of the ring cannot breathe life into the dingy image on the tiny screen (Figure 1). Beyond the television, there is nothing to generate enthusiasm or build the energy of the audience. Negative space occupies the vast majority of the screen, particularly at the beginning of the first chorus, due to the placement of the television in the distance. Even when the television finally sits in the foreground, the surrounding negative space still eats up the majority of the image. At no point in the first chorus does any form of captivating visual stimuli appear, building upon the already established tone of monotony. When combined with the blatant lack of acceleration and auditory stimuli, the drab aesthetics and excessive negative space make for a dreary opening scene.
Fortunately for the audience, as the reporter finishes the line with “the two hours’ traffic of our stage,” the sound of a fluctuating record scratch cuts in, signaling the transition into the enthralling melodrama of the second chorus (li.11-12). The record scratch quickly gives way to a symphonic orchestra with a chorus singing in a language roughly resembling Latin. As the soundscape of the chorus changes, the camera zooms into the television screen with the reporter and continues the zoom as it cuts to skyscrapers in motion with the phrase “IN FAIR VERONA” flashing intermittently in white lettering against a black background (Luhrmann). Finally, with a sense of acceleration and drive established in the film, the newly established direction proves irrefutable. The apathy cultivated in the first chorus disappears completely with this dramatic shift into an environment overflowing with energy. After a dramatic musical flourish centered around the brass section, a new narrator is introduced as he the recites the chorus, giving the introduction a fresh start. Despite the verbal repetition, an energetic atmosphere has been established immediately, greatly differentiating the two introductions. This new narrator re-delivers the chorus with emotion and deliberation, further building upon the energetic tone established with the acceleration and dramatic music. The transition to the second chorus and the scene itself flips the monotonous tone of the first chorus on its head, replacing any memory of boredom with animation through its acceleration, auditory stimuli, and impassioned delivery of the dialogue.
The growing excitement in the second chorus is also cultivated by the aesthetic changes to the delivery in the form of dramatic imagery, editing, and visual exposition not seen in the previous chorus. The beginning of the second chorus accelerates through a collection of skyscrapers, and the camera reaches a statue reminiscent of the Cristo Rey that reappears after the introductory phrase “In fair Verona” flashes upon the screen. The statue remains in the center of the frame as the view expands and a city is revealed with two conspicuous buildings, bearing the rival families’ names on either side (Figure 2). Before the scene moves on, the image noticeably lingers on the straddled Cristo Rey, foreshadowing not only the conflict between the houses but the people caught between it as well. The narration swiftly continues, accompanied by a dramatic montage made to resemble a pseudo newsreel. Multiple phrases from the narration appear on newspaper titles splashed upon the screen between clips of fabricated news footage, aligning with the emphatic articulation of the words themselves. A collection of magazine covers injected with mock-prestige flashes briefly across the screen, displaying several specific references to the narrative. These expository images shift constantly, taking the viewer on a chronological roller coaster of important moments that leave the previously static scene in the dust. This compilation quickly creates a potent aesthetic emphasizing the melodrama of Romeo and Juliet with the flashy meta characteristic of the Red Curtain Aesthetic. The elaborate and exciting visuals of the second chorus playfully inform the audience of the coming excitement with dramatic imagery, swift editing, and expository visuals, finally providing the excitement sorely lacking in the first chorus.
Despite the vastly different choruses, a sense of continuity persists between them. Though they appear in different forms, the use of news media to deliver exposition remains consistent throughout both choruses. By using a live reporter followed by the newsreel montage, different styles of the same informative tool establish a connection while simultaneously building upon the scenes’ contrast. Though Luhrmann clearly establishes contradiction between the two scenes, he is careful not to foster a sense of disconnect between the two introductions. Even the visual transition between the choruses connects the two scenes with some fluidity, as the acceleration rate of the camera is the same as the scene cuts from the reporter to the skyline. Another tie between the scenes comes in the form of heavy foreshadowing through verbal narration and visual cues, setting the scene for the events to come as well as presenting two fluid visual representations of the literary text. Although the first chorus serves as a bluff to bore the audience before the film turns a corner and suddenly introduces an atmosphere buzzing with energy, both choruses establish a sense of continuity throughout the drastically changing modes of presentation.
Through tone, aesthetics, and context, the first chorus of Romeo + Juliet undercuts the defining aesthetic of the movie, setting a false precedent of moderation before electrifying the audience with the exquisite chaos of the film. Perhaps Luhrmann intended to critique television by swathing the television in darkness and introducing it as small and far away. The tone and aesthetic of the first chorus aligns with this theory, as it is the only deliberately static scene in the whole movie, the rest of which reflects the Red Curtain Aesthetic and thus the silver screen experience. However, it is also possible that Luhrmann simply wanted to create contrast between the first forty seconds and the rest of the film for pure shock value. Though his already flamboyant presentation proves potent, the utility of a boring introduction also increases the power of the second chorus by mere comparison. By kicking off with such a monotonous introduction, Luhrmann establishes a false expectation for the pace of the film before quickly shattering it in the following scene. Through editing, style, and aesthetics, Baz Luhrmann creates a complete universe that is both Shakespearean and contemporary, both shockingly new and hauntingly familiar. The direct use of Shakespeare’s text stretches the mind of the reader no more so than the already fantastical setting of the film, but their combination results in a surreal experience that transcends the expectations of any viewer familiar with the work of the Bard of Avon. No matter his motivation for doing so, Luhrmann constructs a clever dual introduction that cannot fail to grab the attention of the audience by quickly inducing and just as quickly breaking a stupor that only serves to enhance the overall experience of the film.
Luhrmann, Baz, director. Romeo + Juliet. 20th Century Fox, 1996.
“Red Curtain Trilogy.” Director Study: Baz Luhrmann, 17 July 2015, bazandmary.weebly.com/red-curtain-trilogy/red-curtain-trilogy. 24 September 2019.
Shakespeare, William, et al. Romeo and Juliet. London: Penguin Books, 2015.
Teague, Fran. “Historical Context of Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare and Film. University of Georgia, Georgia. January 2019.
Walker, Elsie. “Pop Goes the Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo + Juliet.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 2000: 132–139.