Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Spectacular, Spectacular - Baz Luhrmann and the Carnivalesque


This is a guest post by my wonderful sister, Marie-Therese Camilleri.

Laughter, colour, revelry and chaos. Clowns, fools and grotesque exaggeration. Such are the sights and sounds of a carnival, a Feast of Fools. The way Bakhtin infuses this liberal atmosphere into a particular literary form is what lies at the heart of his Carnivalesque. Like the carnivals themselves, the Carnivalesque is about breaking oppressive forms of thought, leading to emancipation of the human spirit in literature and, eventually, in many other art forms including music, fashion and film.
While there have been a small number of films made to specifically and intentionally portray all the elements of the Carnivalesque, there are a select few which incorporate these elements subtly and effectively to blend into a particular mainstream genre. Probably the most well-known of these films are those by the acclaimed Australian director, producer and screenwriter Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann. His first three films, known as the “Red Curtain Trilogy”, are all seen to incorporate elements of the Carnivalesque, more subtly in the first film Strictly Ballroom, released in 1992, and more recognizably in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001).
In each of the three films, we are told the story through an established and insistent thematic device. In Moulin Rouge! this is music, in Romeo + Juliet it is poetry and in Strictly Ballroom it is dance. All three films are built around a theatre motif, and it is for this reason that they are dubbed the “Red Curtain Trilogy”. Luhrmann’s idea was to represent the end, or the ‘curtain call’, of the older methods of entertainment: musical theatre, verse drama and classical dance, and merge them with the modern styles which have now overshadowed them. With the thematic device in place, Luhrmann engages his directorial style in which, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, he manages to capture the Carnivalesque elements of the surreal, inverted world of his characters without crossing the line into burlesque.
In all three films, there are a number of Carnivalesque elements which contribute to the overall effect. Some are subtle, some more aggressive, and some utterly disconcerting. What ties them all together, however, is the editing. Luhrmann’s most recognisable trait is his knack for fast-paced editing, using all kinds of camera angles and techniques. His screenplay is full of fast-forwarding, zooming-in and the camera slamming in and out, creating dizzying montages. By taking an exaggerated and unrealistic approach to the ordinary components of filmmaking, the director demands the audience’s attention simply because such techniques are foreign to them. Dance, song, light, music and colour accentuate the rambunctious camera work and speedy editing. The audience is immediately dropped into a Carnivalesque world of musical and visual mayhem, and feel much like a foreigner would feel after having walked into the world of a full-blown carnival.


Romeo + Juliet is based on what is probably the most popular and well-known of all Shakespeare’s plays. With so many versions of the play already released on film over the years, each reaching new heights in the name of originality, it was valiant of Luhrmann to even take on the challenge, let alone take it to a level most directors would never dream of. Due to the play’s popularity, he was very much aware that the majority of his audience would walk in to the cinema thinking they knew what to expect. In order to counter this, he used his soon-to-be trademark technique immediately, creating one of the most memorable montage scenes of his career. The opening montage sets the scene of Verona Beach. The frenetic shots of the dominating Capulet and Montague skyscrapers intercut with images of newspaper headlines, the towering statue of Jesus and scenes that look like a war zone make the start of the film visually astonishing and intellectually confusing. The audience is disarmed, stripped of any preconceptions, and we are made to watch the well-known play afresh.
Luhrmann’s signature montages are also a common feature in Moulin Rouge! The opening scenes again establish the scene, and we get our first look at the famous nightclub. We meet the owner of the cabaret, Harold Zidler, and before we know it, we’re immersed in the hallucinogenic whirl of cancan skirts, red lips and top hats. As our protagonist, Christian, says in the opening scenes, this is the place where “the rich and powerful came to play with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld”. These words accentuate the exotic mystique that surrounds the club. There is an obvious sensuousness that in the audience’s mind is meant to define life in the Parisian night club in the 1900s. The strong element of play, as well as raucous, sensuous characters, creates the carnival images one would expect to see in a spectacle. However, although there is a very strong theatre motif throughout the film, we are subconsciously aware that life in the night club is a delicate balance of real life and performance. It sits on a borderline between reality and art. This is a strong element of the Carnivalesque – there is little acknowledged distinction between the actors and the spectators. The audience become enthralled with life inside the Moulin Rouge, however why that is may not be that obvious. This attractiveness is another important feature of the Carnivalesque: There are no laws but the laws of the Moulin Rouge. Anyone who enters the club is subject only to the wild and carefree way of life for the entire night. The situation is the same during carnival – real life goes on hold. There is no life outside the carnival life, only raw emotion, seduction and titillation.
Perhaps the most disquieting feature seen in all the films is the laughter motif. When watching the films, you’re sure to see a loud and flamboyant face fill the screen, belting out a long, monstrous laugh. Luhrmann might enhance the laugh’s effect by dragging it out in slow motion, or moving in to an extreme close up. The faces are usually caked in make-up, instantly drawing your attention to the carnival theme, as in Mercutio’s case during the Capulet ball in Romeo + Juliet or with the immense number of sleazy dancers spinning towards the screen in Moulin Rouge! Bakhtin wrote about carnival laughter, calling it the ‘laughter of all the people’.[1] Carnival laugher is ambivalent: at once happy and celebratory but also jeering and deriding. Laughter is a large component of the spectacle scenes in all the films. In Strictly Ballroom, the laughs are part of the performance, exaggerated, false and appearing as almost manic, but in both the Capulet ball scene in Romeo + Juliet and the scenes of night-time frenzy in Moulin Rouge!, the characters themselves are jesting and animal, wrapped up in the Carnivalesque atmosphere full of rogues and fools, unable to contain their frenzied emotions.
Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque is most evidently manifested in the individual characters themselves. The supporting cast of Strictly Ballroom are a ridiculous bunch for whom dance is everything and winning the only option. It’s from the cast’s overdramatic displays of emotion that the film gets it’s wicked, crazy humour.


Moulin Rouge! goes a step further, presenting possibly the most diverse supporting cast in a single film. We are introduced to Harold Zidler, the larger-than-life club owner with a figure and hairstyle to match. His bright orange hair and handlebar moustache do little to distort the wacky looks thrown from his darting eyes, and we can think of nobody better to manage the club and sell his courtesans. Known as the Diamond Dogs, these cancan dancers dominate the screen in a wild flurry of vivid debauchery and an extravagant array of sequins, feathers and fabulous costumes. Another character in the film is based on the great Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Luhrmann accentuated the artist’s eccentric features, making a caricature of him to add to the general emphasis on the surreal. Christian’s crew also includes Audrey, a transsexual playwright; a skittish and completely bald pianist named Satie and an incredibly talented Argentinean actor with an unfortunate case of narcolepsy. Needless to say, these characters are no coincidence. They bring the film to life, walking the fine line between reality and fantasy.
The garish showiness of the Capulet ball in Romeo + Juliet embellishes the Carnivalesque features of the characters and draws attention to their significance which up until then may not have been so obvious. By means of costumes and the carnival atmosphere, Luhrmann is able to emphasize the contrast between the rivalled families. While the Montague boys don silly Viking outfits, and Benvolio a humble friar’s habit, Tybalt is dressed as the devil himself, and his cousins as skeletons. The message is clear: the Montagues just want to have fun, while the Capulets are foreshadowed as the evildoers of the film. During this scene, Mercutio is the life of the party, dressed up to the nines in a flashy drag outfit complete with a wig and heels. He is established as the most fun-loving character in the film, which makes his murder all the more terrible. Also during the ball scene we see Paris, the most establishment-minded character, in his immaculate gear of an enthusiastic astronaut. Juliet’s father is reminiscent of Caesar in purple robes, which complement his tyrannical nature, while his wife wears a gaudy Cleopatra outfit, which suggests her longing for tragic grandeur. It is through Luhrmann’s specific choice of costume that the nature of each character is made so vividly clear. This is interesting, seeing as how costumes are normally associated with hiding one’s flaws, one’s characteristics. People usually enjoy dressing up just to be able to act without consequence. Rather than allowing the characters to be someone different for a night, Luhrmann employs the Carnival motif to draw attention to their qualities.
A particularly important feature of a Carnival is forcefully present in all three of the ‘Red Curtain’ films, and this is the suspension of all hierarchical precedence. Bakhtin clearly describes a carnival as being different from official feasts, where everyone was expected to display their ranks and merits and to stick to their assigned role and place according to their position. On the contrary, during the Carnival, all revellers were considered equal. There were no divisions of caste, age, profession or property.
Such freedom and equality is an ideal longed for by many characters in countless films, however the link between the ideal situation and the reality of the situation during carnival can be noted throughout all of the Red Curtain Trilogy. Our “star cross’d lovers” in Romeo + Juliet illustrate this point in the most explicit way possible. Whether due to their undying love for each other or for their refusal to conform to the rules set by their families and society, their actions and choices throughout the film are clearly insubordinate – all the way to their tragic suicides. Similarly, but much more subtly, Strictly Ballroom sees Scott and Fran undermine all convention to follow their dreams, resulting in their toppling of the established board of judges. Satine’s love for Christian in Moulin Rouge! leads her to revolt against all the rules she has had to conform to throughout her life. She challenges the man who controlled her life and undermines the only person who can give her the job of her dreams.
Resistance and rebellion are very common themes seen in a vast number of films; however Luhrmann brought something extra in backing these themes with the Carnivalesque motif. It may be said that among all the exaggeration and flamboyance, the protagonists felt all the more reason to resist the hierarchical constraints that they struggled against. One might venture to say that Luhrmann set all the elements of the Carnivalesque in place except for this one, in order to give his protagonists a reason to strive towards achieving an ideal situation, an ideal world which one would experience during the carnival.
The Carnivalesque disturbance of the establishment was taken on more directly by Luhrmann himself during the production of Romeo + Juliet. A number of disrespectful elements are scattered throughout the film, including a joke played at the expense of the revered Globe Theatre which is depicted as a dodgy pool hall. Luhrmann also makes fun of the audience’s obeisance to Shakespeare. Even after completely disarming them of expectations in the opening montage, he goes on to pepper the film with signifiers from a number of other plays, such as the shop sign which says “The Merchant of Verona Beach” and a billboard stating “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On”.

On a more serious note, however, Luhrmann ridicules religion through his mise-en-scène. The enormous cathedral statue dominates the landscape of Verona beach, and both families and the society they live in are undoubtedly Catholic in their beliefs. Yet adultery, violence, drugs and revenge are a part of everyday life on the beach. Luhrmann expertly juxtaposes this with the abundant religious displays, highlighting the hypocrisy of the situation.

Even in this, Luhrmann maintains the other elements of the Carnivalesque. The surreal element is ever-present. The Catholicism depicted is one which the audience will not be able to recognize. Hawaiian shirts covered in religious images, a priest with a large tattoo on his back, neon-lit crosses inside the cathedral and choral versions of Prince pop songs as an accompaniment to mass are all exaggerated versions of reality, taking it to the extreme, just like everything else in the carnival world.

Of all the elements of the Carnivalesque, the most predominant would probably be that of images related to the body. Ever exaggerated, images of the human body associated with consumption of food and drink as well as with sexual life play an important role in creating the carnival atmosphere. Such images form part of what is known as grotesque realism, in which ‘the carnal, the comic and the cosmic all coincide in a revolution’.[2] The body and all that it does materially are regarded as something universal, belonging to all humans and therefore something positive. The most common themes of such images of bodily life are growth, fertility and abundance, and these themes are also manifested in the films in question.

In both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann creates a world for his audience to walk into and understand without need for explanation. In the Capulet ball scene, we are shown a Bacchanalian feast full of grotesque imagery which is only excessively enhanced by the effects of Romeo’s drug-use. The same goes for the dizzying scenes of grotesque decadence during a night at the Moulin Rouge, with the camera focusing on the drunken and sweaty faces of the men alongside the bountiful curves and figures of the dancers.

The films, just like Carnival itself, are a bombardment of images and sounds, an assault of the senses. Unabashed in their excesses of sensation, they celebrate the Carnivalesque amid passionate dances, bawdy, beautiful courtesans and doomed romances. They are set in highly theatrical, almost fantasy worlds brimming with grotesque realism. They are fanciful feasts for the eyes, just as Luhrmann intended.


[1] Morris, Pam, The Bakhtin Reader (Hodder Education 1997), p. 200. [2] Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002), p. 368 [accessed 11 January 2011].


Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002), pp. 365-381 [accessed 11 January 2011]. Pam Morris, The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (Hodder Education 1997). Vera Zubarev, "Nature vs. civilization: a review article of films by Luhrmann" The Free Library (2009). . [accessed 11 February 2011]. Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge University Press 2001). Jennifer L. Martin, “Tights vs. Tattoos: Filmic Interpretations of "Romeo and Juliet", The English Journal, 92.1, (2002), pp. 41-46 [accessed 11 February 2011]

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