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Baz Luhrmann’s Next Masterpiece

by Harold Lang.

The highly-anticipated film version of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t due to hit theaters until May 2013, but trailers for the film are making a splash. Baz Luhrmann’s fifth feature-length film is poised for huge commercial success in the U.S. and abroad. In anticipation, let’s take a look back at Lurhmann’s previous work and his very distinctive approach to filmmaking.

For those unfamiliar with his work, here is a short fan video that captures the essence of his first four films, “Strictly Ballroom” (1992), “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) and “Australia” (2008). The first three feature films Lurhmann made have been called the Red Curtain Trilogy. The films are tied together not by common plot or characters but through the cinematic style and approach to storytelling. We’ll use the Red Curtain films to discuss what makes Luhrmann’s style unique and to illustrate what you can learn from it.

Heightened Reality

At the beginning of each film, the audience is introduced to a cinematic world and heightened reality in which the ending is known. In fact, Luhrmann takes great pains to remind the viewer what the ending will be. In this way, the film cannot rely on a surprise plot twist to engage the audience. The film must tell the story in a compelling way.

Lurhmann was quoted in a June 2001 edition of Venice Magazine as saying, “The difficult thing is to build a very simple plot…We found it much easier when we were doing naturalistic work, because when you’re revealing plot as you go along, you’ve got something to hang it on.”

The range of choices available to the actors is the sort of thing one dreams of while attending acting classes at Academy of Art — to live and work in this heightened reality lets them really explore emotions and choices that don’t work in more naturalistic cinema.

In “Strictly Ballroom,” the audience can enjoy the dancing as it is rather than waiting for it to finish so a plot point can be revealed. There are no gratuitous song and dance numbers (either literally or figuratively) in these films.

With “Romeo + Juliet,” foreshadowing is a tool Shakespeare already employed quite masterfully. The audience is constantly reminded after the emotional highs that the characters’ fate is firmly set.

With “Moulin Rouge!” the narrator is the author of the tale and the lead male character. His opening lines tell us that the story is about love and the woman he loved is dead. Throughout the film, Luhrmann flashes forward to the unkempt author typing his sad tale in a garret apartment, effectively putting the audience on notice for impending doom. It is cinematically equivalent to the long climb of a roller coaster before a big drop.

Perfection Isn’t Always Perfect

Luhrmann is fantastic at recognizing what is objectively good versus what is right for the story he is telling. Everything he does in his films is done to serve the story. In “Strictly Ballroom,” which is an ugly duckling story, the female lead Fran never magically dances at the level of the professionals. She dances beautifully. She has fantastic chemistry with the leading man. She is always believable as a character who is transforming. Compare it to the many American-made teen ugly ducking films in which the “ugly” translates to “not quite mainstream but still attractive.” Which story is more compelling and engaging?

For the musical “Moulin Rouge!” Luhrmann looked for actors, not singers. Specifically, he looked for actors that could act through voice and singing. Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor weren’t at all known for singing chops, but they were incredibly compelling in their roles. Quite a lot of digital effects were used in “Moulin Rouge!” and a large portion of that budget was used to create imperfections in the digital footage.

In Luhrmann’s words (taken from the same print interview), “life in digital is absolutely mathematically perfect. Unfortunately, real life is nothing like that.”

The opening scene, in black and white, looks like archival footage because of the intentional addition of bumps, shakes and focus adjustments.

There’s plenty more that can be said and studied about Luhrmann’s work. If you take away only one thing, remember his unwavering commitment to the story he’s telling.

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