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Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli’s film Essay

Having watched two different film adaptations of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it is clear to see that the two directors have used a number of different techniques, quite differently at times, to put across their particular interpretations of the play. These methods and different interpretations are very obvious if one studies the same scene as portrayed in each film. We looked at Franco Zeffirelli’s 1970’s version of the play and Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation produced in 1996 and focused on their interpretation of the scene where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time.

The first thing I noticed is that costume is very important in Zeffirelli’s scene. Juliet, played by Olivia Hussey, is wearing a traditional styled red and gold dress, which highlights wealth. It is not as detailed as most at the party which points to the fact that it is not just material wealth she has but also the huge amount of natural beauty she has. The bright red contrasts with her pale complexion and jet-black hair to make her look very striking. Romeo’s outfit is also very noticeable as he is wearing a mask. It adds to the air of mystery around him as Juliet meets him for the first time. It also helps to make a point about the nature of their attraction: when she first sees him, Juliet sees only Romeo’s eyes, yet is still drawn to him. Therefore, here there is something more than physical attraction. Instead, it seems to be a communion of souls since eyes are often considered to be the windows to this part of ourselves.

The choreography of the scene also reveals something about Romeo’s feelings towards Juliet. His attention is fixed upon a lady – which we assume to be Rosaline – who is dancing and then twirls out of shot to reveal Juliet to R0meo. It is here that he proclaims he has never seen true beauty until now. It is showing to us that although Romeo thought he was in love with Rosaline, it is nothing compared to his feelings for Juliet. When the chance arises for Romeo to join Juliet in a dance, he dismisses other ladies for the opportunity to dance with Juliet. As the dancing gets faster, long shots are used to show the amount of people present at the party. The dancing changes and people begin to spin around in a circle; the camera shots change, letting people flow past the camera at a very high speed.

It looks like flashes of colour flying through the shot; no faces can be seen clearly. The fast dancing reflects the sheer excitement that they are feeling, that they are so in love that it is truly exhilarating. It is here that Franco Zeffirelli shows how love at first sight really can be true as amongst the chaos and frivolity of colour, the camera jump – cuts to Romeo to the party of moving colour and to Juliet. He has done this to show how amongst the chaos of their feuding families, they have their own world where no one else matters except each other.

When the bard starts to sing, Romeo and Juliet speak for the first time. As they do, the words being sung in the background have a large resemblance to their lives. It tells of their willingness to be together but their struggle to make it possible as they are torn apart by their feuding families. As the choreography reflects the emotions of the characters, the score that plays in the Zeffirelli film reflects their emotions again as when Romeo sees Juliet, he sees her beauty and the score changes to a softer, more gentle tune. Franco Zeffirelli contrasts Romeo and Juliet when they are together with the music. It changes from loud, frantic music to gentle, heavenly tunes, the score changes to a minor key as she is not sure about him and then surges as they kiss.

In the play, Shakespeare also juxtaposes scenes that are chaotic with very calm peaceful ones. As I have said, the score changes as Juliet and Romeo are together and in the play, Shakespeare shows their love by constantly comparing scenes with them in to scenes with fighting, frantic happenings and chaos.

In Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the scene I have studied begins with Romeo – played by Leonardo Di Caprio – with his face submerged in water, washing his face, which clears his mind of drugs and he sees Juliet in a clearer light. The lovers’ first meeting is a sequence where each is on either side of a lavish fish tank. The lighting used is a pale blue, making it seem slightly surreal, almost dream like. As Romeo and Juliet playfully look at each other through the tank, camera shots cleverly portray their meeting to look like they are together inside the tank. In this scene, camera distances vary from medium close-shots to close-ups and back again, their eyes are depicted throughout, as the camera shots change, it portrays them watching each other, discovering each other every feature, every move.

The idea of social and physical barriers is presented by having the fish tank between the two of them, keeping them apart – thus visualizing to the audience the other aspect of Romeo and Juliet’s love. The fish tank serves as a physical barrier between the two lovers, even though there are also a lot of emotional barriers. Even though Romeo is dazed from the ecstasy pill and his infatuation with Rosaline, it is the water that purifies and cleanses his mind – and it the free, flowing nature of water that Luhrmann uses as a representation of love.

When the two lovers kiss in the lift, the cameras encircle them, thus suggesting that Romeo and Juliet are at the centre of their own universe, in total disregard or lack of awareness of the social chaos – as suggested by the blurred images around them. The way in which the imagery of water is used to symbolise their own world, camera shots, lighting and music also add to the depth of their love. The beautiful melody of “Kissing You” marks the initial meeting of Romeo and Juliet, and Des’ree’s deep, soulful voice glides gently through the house as the strangers playfully observe each other through the fish tank. The score is a brave and eclectic mix of atmospheric music from Radiohead’s ‘Talk Show Host’ to Wagner’s ‘Liebstod’. The emphasis is on music that is emotive and suitable for a particular scene rather than creating a soundtrack rooted in one genre as in the Zeffirelli adaptation.

The Capulet Ball is one of the most outstanding sequences in the movie. The decorations are spectacular, and the costumes are magnificent. However, the party is not all just glitz and glamour. Upon closer investigation, we can see that it is also a perfect opportunity for Luhrmann to accentuate the individual motivations of the characters with clever use of costumes. Romeo is the knight in shining armour who has been sent to rescue Juliet, and Juliet is a bright angel, innocent and pure, who has been sent to relieve Romeo’s confusion and despair. Luhrmann supplements this image by showing Romeo and Juliet as innocent, beautiful and youthful. This is achieved by the continuous focus of the cameras on the freshness of their skin, their sparkling eyes, flushed cheeks and pink lips in addition to the words of Shakespeare.

In conclusion, these two films, although based upon the same play, come across very differently. The fact that Franco Zeffirelli has set his in the time Shakespeare intended it to and Baz Luhrmann has set his in 20th century Verona beach, Florida has a considerable amount to do with these differences. It is interesting to see that both directors have used the concept of the young couple existing in their ‘own world’, although both of them use different techniques to present this, their outcome is visualised to the viewer the same. Baz Luhrmann has had certain advantages to his film as he had technology to help him portray the initial meaning in a more ‘dream like’ manner with the help of special lighting and specific camera shots. Also, this adaptation was a major Hollywood blockbuster with millions of dollars to be spent on it. Whereas, 40 years ago, I imagine that Franco Zeffirelli would have had to deal with a budget and obviously, did not have the technology to portray special effects and sounds.


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