Raise the Curtain: Playing with the Narrative in Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy
According to Baz Luhrmann there are a few general guidelines for the films in his Red Curtain Trilogy. One of these guidelines is a prominent motif designed to individualize and progress the films (dancing in Strictly Ballroom (1992), poetry/language in Romeo + Juliet (1996), and singing in Moulin Rouge! (2001). Additionally, the reality depicted in the films is “reel” not “real,” meaning the continuity of time and authenticity of events is often disregarded in each for cinematic effect. Through this guideline Luhrmann experiments with cutting and cross-cutting, pacing, as well as absurdity and surrealism. And, lastly, the plots of the films must be simple and the audience must understand how the film will end from the establishing/opening sequence. This last guideline is, perhaps, most significant to the trilogy as a whole.
During the 1980s and 1990s in America the “choose your own adventure” children’s books were popular on so many children’s bookshelves. In this particular style of fiction the plots are always simple and straightforward, yet the reader makes a decision(s) as to where the story will go by following the book’s options. (In other words, after a certain amount of pages, readers must select which page they want to continue the story on; each option alters the adventure.) Each story begins the same and contains the same protagonist(s), even though elements of the plot will vary. With The Red Curtain Trilogy, Baz Luhrmann creates, in part, a cinematic version of the “choose your own adventure” style.
Like the popular children’s books, Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! are the exact same narrative, only the details and endings of each are different. Luhrmann sets up one narrative and manipulates how the story could end (selects different page numbers, if you will) to create three separate films. Concisely, Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! are all about unlikely couples who fall madly in love. Although their families and society try to pull them apart, the lovers cannot be broken up. The pairs must conceal their feelings from the world and willingly sacrifice everything to be together. Yes, each film incorporates its own motifs and details to differentiate, however this basic plotline is always the same.
Just as the reader of the adventure books must make a decision as to which direction the book will go, Luhrmann makes a series (literally) of decisions that all center on three different endings for the same narrative about the lovers: 1) with the lovers living happily ever after, 2) with the lovers dying, and 3) with one lover dying, leaving the other to distraught.
The other part of this is how Luhrmann sets each film up so the audience will know how the narrative will end. This guideline is where Luhrmann is able to explore cinematics. In Strictly Ballroom, the opening is comedic and colorful. Not only is the initial dance number humorous, the cuts to a mocumentary style of interviewing further the witty nature of the film. Establishing this mood suggests to his audience the film is a comedy and will end happily. In fact the film does end upbeat, and the colorful beginning at a dance competition is also the last shot of the film exactly; Luhrmann bookends this film, as well as the latter two films. In Romeo + Juliet, the opening montage is epic, jarring, enthralling, ominous, and spectacular. Luhrmann uses a lot of rapid cuts, vibrant color, and operatic music to create intensity and set an uneasy tone. This opening prepares the audience for the film and its conclusion. To bookend this film Luhrmann uses a second montage just after Juliet shoots herself, signaling the end of the narrative. (The film actually has two sets of bookends. The other is the television news broadcast which bookmarks the entire film, not only the lovers story.) Finally, with Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann begins at the end, with a depressed Christian telling the audience about the death of his love. This opening is dark, with only a bit of blue lighting. Luhrmann uses close-ups, intimately revealing Christian’s pain. Also, he uses a striking high angle to suggest how weak and defeated Christian feels. These cinematic elements of color and angle reinforce the film’s tragic conclusion and are reiterated at the end of the film when Satine dies on stage.
Opening and closing shots from Strictly Ballroom
Opening and closing shots from Romeo + Juliet
Opening and closing shots from Moulin Rouge!
Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy is more an exercise in style than a trilogy of more popular terms. Even though the narratives do not continue into one another, like, say, The Godfather trilogy, Luhrmann’s narratives are a significant part of his series. While his films are far from children’s stories, it does feel as though Luhrmann selected a new adventure with one. With a minor change in the ending and new motifs for each, Luhrmann successfully tells the same story three times.