Sensing that he cannot leave yet, Romeo leaps out of the Montague convertible. Mercutio desperately calls after him, thinking he is still lamenting Rosaline, when in fact Romeo is setting back out to find Juliet. Concerned but now holding up the motorcade of guests leaving the Capulet party, Mercutio and the other Montague boys drive away, leaving Romeo to scale the walls surrounding the mansion. When he comes down on the other side, he finds himself in an ornate courtyard, its architectural features replete with statuesque carvings of human figures, in the middle of which is a lighted pool. A long staircase connects the upper landing to the courtyard floor. Romeo stumbles and breaks a lamp, causing a dog to bark and a security officer's attention to perk up; he pushes himself flat up against a wall covered with a lattice-work of vines.
A light suddenly goes on inside the room above. Romeo climbs the vines toward the second story window and waxes poetic about Juliet's beauty, hoping his words will cause her to appear, but The Nurse pops out instead, causing Romeo to recoil in surprised disgust. As he swings back into a concealed position, the first-floor elevator dings and Juliet steps out into the open air in her nightgown, striding past where Romeo is hiding.
Juliet begins her "Rome, Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo..." soliloquy, wandering toward the edge of the pool and crouching down, as Romeo breathlessly watches from behind her, still clinging tightly to the lattice-work. When she rises again, he has crept up closely behind her. When he suddenly responds to one of her pleas, Juliet screams and loses her footing, and both of them go plunging into the pool water.
When they emerge above the surface, Juliet asks him how he was able to scale the mansion walls, and anxiously warns him that his presence there could lead to his death. Romeo responds that love carried him toward her, and boldly shouts that he will not be cowed by the Capulets. His commotion lures a security guard out to the pool, forcing Juliet to push him out of sight while the guard inspects the surroundings. Juliet pacifies the guard with a smile and he retreats.
After Romeo manages to assuage Juliet's fears, they share a passionate kiss in the pool. Afterwards, Juliet asks Romeo sincerely if he loves her. Romeo vows he loves her "by yonder blessed moon," but Juliet asks him "to swear not by the moon," as it bespeaks inconstancy and volatility. She asks him either not to swear at all, or to swear by his own image. Juliet reveals that Romeo's sudden, rash appearance has made her more anxious than joyous, and attempts to bid him goodnight, climbing out of the pool.
As she heads for the stairs, Romeo calls pleadingly after her, asking whether she will leave him thusly "so unsatisfied." Juliet suspiciously asks him what satisfaction he desires, thinking he may merely be craving an act of sexual consummation. Romeo responds that what he wants is an honest exchange of "faithful vow[s]"—essentially, a marriage proposal. Overjoyed at his answer, Juliet runs back into his arms and the two crash into the pool once more. Underneath the water, they share a kiss.
The splash startles The Nurse, who calls after Juliet from inside and makes for the courtyard. Juliet breathlessly tells Romeo that if his proposal is sincere to send her word tomorrow and she'll happily accept; but if not, to let her grieve and not contact her further. They say goodnight and steal one last parting kiss through the banister of the stairs. From the balcony, Juliet tells Romeo she will send for him at 1:00pm the following day. Romeo rushes up the lattice-work to catch a beaded necklace with a cross that she drops into his arms as a symbol of their exchange of vows. As Romeo retreats and The Nurse continues to wail, Juliet mourns that "parting is such sweet sorrow."
The "balcony scene" in Luhrmann's film was shot on location at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, Mexico. The preceding scenes, in which Romeo is led away by Mercutio and the other Montague boys as Juliet looks on from a number of interior and exterior balconies, fully creates the expectation in the viewer that Romeo and Juliet will soon meet again within the context of the forthcoming love scene, almost certainly the most well known of the entire play. Luhrmann's staging uses this expectation to generate an ironic effect, choosing not to frame the action as a "balcony" scene at all, but rather a swimming pool scene. This dramatic irony reaches a moment of comic frisson when Romeo, climbing the lattice-work to Juliet's second-story window, is unexpectedly greeted by The Nurse's visage instead.
Having realized the balcony was a decoy, the viewer then sees Juliet on the ground level walking toward the pool. A layer of dramatic irony persists to the extent that Juliet does not realize Romeo is present until he responds directly to her after his aside, by which point she is on the edge of the shimmering blue pool, a symbol for Romeo and Juliet's luminous but ill-fated love as already established in the aquarium scene. The image of them underwater is meant to invariably conjure the image of them drowning, and their falling together into the pool is a gesture that symbolizes the combination of abandon, haste, and carelessness that ultimately dooms them both to the underworld.
The scene was important for the marketing and success of the film, given that it depends entirely on the chemistry between Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead roles. Its aesthetic and location—an illicit, steamy make-out session hosted in a stately courtyard with a sleek, glowing pool-- would fit in among popular primetime soap operas on network television set in mid-1990s Los Angeles like Beverly Hills, 90210, and Melrose Place. DiCaprio's role in the coming-of-age story The Basketball Diaries (1995) and Claire Danes's role in the high school television drama My So-Called Life (1994-95) had primed them both in the public eye for the kind of youthful, romantic atmosphere Luhrmann was seeking to create. For this scene, Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio were nominated for the MTV Movie Award for "Best Kiss."
Romeo and Juliet's first conversation is also a negotiation, one in which Romeo is passionately vying for Juliet's attentions and Juliet is strategically halting his advances. When a frustrated Romeo asks "O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?" Danes's Juliet responds, "What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?" in a sharp manner, evoking a feminist political emphasis on a woman's bodily autonomy. The politics of female sexuality and virginity was also a subject well mined by the plots of young-adult soap operas that this scene resembles, such as Donna Martin's storyline on Beverly Hills, 90210.
When Romeo formally vows his proposal to Juliet and she accepts, the two crash into the blue pool once more and share a deep kiss, symbolizing the fact that their marriage contract has also sealed their fate unto death. The image of them kissing underwater recurs in flashback much later after they have committed suicide and slows to a dramatic freeze-frame, suggesting an iconic, timeless effect that affirms its centrality within the visual and symbolic hierarchies of the film. The object that symbolizes their hopeful exchange of vows—Juliet's locket, which she romantically drops into Romeo's hand near the scene's end—is tragically returned by Romeo to her finger before he dies in the film's final moments, an archetypal symbol of their "star cross'd" fate.
10 July 2011
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 cinematic interpretation of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Julietredefines the term visual spectacle. Sometimes absurd and other times surreal, Luhrmann’s shots are vibrant, complex, exaggerated, and always striking. Furthermore, the rapidity of his cuts produces an abundance of these penetrating shots, intentionally thrust upon the audience (sexual language intended…this is, after all, stemming from The Bard). Some critics liken Luhrmann’s embellished and amplified visuals to the narrative’s theme of young love. That is, the visual chaos parallels the chaos created by the young lovers who throw caution to the wind during their whirlwind romance, an intelligent and supportable claim.
However, there is more to Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet than simply the visual as spectacle; not all the striking visuals in Romeo + Juliet are a spectacle, in the flashy or loud sense of the word. Beyond creating chaos and vibrancy, Luhrmann also visual motifs to convey meaning. One of the most striking motifs is water, used in a variety of ways, throughout film. This motif in not borrowed from the literary text; the water motif is used cinematically to enrich and add relevancy to some of the film’s visuals.
The first time the audience sees water is right after one of the opening sequences (a heated gas station brawl between the Montagues and Capulets) when Benvolio (Dash Mihok) finds Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) staring out to the ocean during a bout of depression. For reasons understood retrospectively, Romeo is drawn to the ocean in his time of bewilderment and heartache. Shortly after this scene, the audience first meets Juliet (Claire Danes) underwater in her bathtub. Again, although the significance of these two characters and water is a retrospective realization, it is important to point out both Romeo and Juliet are introduced to the audience with a connection to water. Meaning is derived as the images of water turn into a pattern.
The next time the audience sees water it begins to become clear water is in some way connected to clarity, rejuvenation, and truth. At the Capulet’s costume party, after taking a drug from Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), Romeo, with his mask on, dunks his head in a sink. Up until this point, Romeo’s experience at the party was severely altered due to the powerful effects of the drug; however, the water brings him back to a sober mindset. In pulling his head from the sink, Romeo leaves his mask behind, symbolically leaving behind the pretense inflicted on him by the drug. Thanks to the water, the influenced, artificial Romeo is now gone and the honest Romeo reemerges. In the brief, rather subtle moment, the audience is queued to notice how water pulls Romeo from a deeply affected mindset to a clearer one based in reality.
This moment leads directly into Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. Still relying on the water motif, Luhrmann stages the characters to first lock eyes through an aquarium full of exotic fish. Building off the sink used moments before, water continues to serve as a repeated symbol of truth. In seeing each other through the water they are seeing each other clearly; not unfiltered, rather filtered (as water is) of the chaos and affected atmosphere surrounding them.
Moreover, a particularly nice touch by Luhrmann is the way he shots Romeo and Juliet looking at each other through the aquarium. As conveyed in this film’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, Juliet’s life, up until this moment, revolves around her parents’ expectations and demands. However, when Juliet sees Romeo for the first time, the camera also captures Juliet’s own reflection in the aquarium along with Romeo’s image. This shot is significant because it suggests Juliet finally sees herself and her own wants and desires in her love for Romeo; in some way, in seeing Romeo for the first time Juliet is also seeing herself for the first time. The same is true for Romeo; in seeing Juliet’s image, he also sees his own reflection. Again, the water’s presence suggests to the audience the honesty of the moment and clarity in Romeo and Juliet’s thoughts.
Building further on the motif of water, the famous balcony scene is shot around and in the Capulet’s swimming pool. Just as Romeo was drawn to the beach when heartbroken over Roseline, Juliet is drawn to her pool when reeling with thoughts of Romeo being the son of a Montague, her family’s sworn enemy. Juliet draw to the pool, like Romeo’s to the beach, symbolizes a yearning for clarity, identifying water as a source of truth. As the scene continues Romeo enters and the two end up in the pool professing their love for one another. Once again, as with the sink and aquarium, the water removes the pretense; in the water Romeo is not simply a Montague and Juliet a Capulet. Reality is clearer and simpler when water is present.
As the plot continues, Tybalt (John Leguizamo) and Mercutio begin their fatal fight at the beach and Romeo enters their argument already in progress. In this scene and the one to follow the meaning of water as a motif of truth and clarity becomes more apparent. When Romeo first approaches the fight he is greatly influenced by the water surrounding him at the beach; Romeo is calm and unaffected by the conflict and pretense around him. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt and attempts to end their long-standing feud. It is not until Tybalt kills Mercutio and flees the scene does the audience see a change in Romeo. In pursuing Tybalt, Romeo is drawn away from the beach into the city. The further Romeo gets from the water the more clouded and affected his mindset becomes (further emphasized visually by the clouds beginning to build in the sky); Romeo becomes fixated on revenge. After a car chase and subsequent crash, Romeo guns down Tybalt in, what appears to be, the city’s center. Fatally wounded, Tybalt falls back into a giant fountain. Importantly, the water in the fountain is not shown until after Tybalt is shot. Luhrmann wisely captures Tybalt’s decent into the water in slow motion as Romeo’s face changes from rage to sorrow. As Tybalt hits the water, Romeo’s eyes well-up with tears and the clear realization of his action hits him. Additionally, it begins to rain and Romeo shouts out the famous line, “I am fortune’s fool,” solidifying to the audience Romeo now, in the presence of water, understands reality in a way he did not when pursuing and murdering Tybalt. During these scenes the audience sees Romeo do a complete 360; he goes from mental clarity to complete chaos and confusion to clarity once more. And, by this point in the film, the presence of water during these swings in Romeo’s mindset are more than just coincidental, intentionally, Luhrmann in using water as a motif for truth and clarity.
Luhrmann also continues connecting water with Juliet and her ability to see reality clearly. After her first (and only) night with Romeo—which, in this film, unlike the play, occurs after Romeo kills Tybalt—he leaves her room and exits into the pool from the prior scene. As soon as Romeo is in the water, Juliet says she “sees [Romeo] at the bottom of a tomb,” which, in the moment, is ominous but inevitably true. Once again, through the water Juliet can sees clearest.
The film’s conclusion is devoid of water, which supports the claim Romeo and Juliet’s death is a result of confusion and mistruth. First, Romeo is banished to the desert, a dry waterless environment, therefore complicating his perception of reality. And, later, in the tomb, far removed from water, Romeo and Juliet die confused and without knowing the truth about what happened to each other.
Hidden in the midst of countless visual images, Luhrmann’s water motif flows subtly and consistently throughout Romeo + Juliet. Each instance of water supports a moment of truth, juxtaposed with the moments of utmost chaos and confusion when water is nowhere to be found. This motif is easily lost in the overall visual spectacle Luhrmann presents; however, sifting through the spectacle reveals the visuals are working in meaningful, complex ways.
~ by Kate Bellmore on 10/07/2011.
Posted in The Films of Baz Luhrmann
Tags: Baz Luhrmann, Claire Danes, Dash Mihok, Harold Perrineau, Leonardo DiCaprio, motifs, Romeo Juliet, William Shakespeare