Catherine Martin: Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!
Catherine Martin: Designs for Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!
Curator Jenny Gall continues her series of articles charting the career of Catherine Martin and her celebrated collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann. Catherine Martin is the most awarded Australian in Oscar history. Here, Jenny looks at her costume designs (with Angus Strathie) for Moulin Rouge! (2001) and her production design on Romeo + Juliet (1996, for which Kym Barrett designed costumes). Read earlier articles about Catherine's award-winning costumes for ELVIS (2022) and Strictly Ballroom (1992).
Romeo + Juliet: Young Love in Turmoil
From the romantic, comic world of Strictly Ballroom (1992), the next step for the Bazmark creative team, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, was an ambitious global production with 20th Century Fox – a groundbreaking retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy, Romeo + Juliet (1996):
Having stars Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes in the lead roles helped spearhead Bazmark’s entry into Hollywood. As film editor Jill Bilcock remarked of Baz Luhrmann’s work on Romeo + Juliet, ‘a great director is someone who has something to say that’s never been said before and they say it in their unique style’. The same might be said of Catherine Martin’s ability to translate Luhrmann’s vision into reality in each of their five film collaborations.
On show in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition at the NFSA are concept books by Baz and Catherine and storyboards for Romeo as well as key interviews that capture the evolution of Bazmark’s ambitious retelling of the iconic romantic tragedy.
View illustrative excerpts from the Bazmark concept books for Romeo + Juliet below:
The Bazmark team selected Mexico City – highlighting its passionate, macho culture underpinned by religious fervour – as the location for the film, to re-energise the setting for modern audiences. Catherine Martin (Art Direction) and Brigitte Broch (Set Decoration) received an Academy Award nomination for their work on the film.
The costumes reflect the conflict between the dominant masculine revenge culture and the strength and purity of Romeo’s love for Juliet. The violent gang culture of Romeo’s world is embodied by the garish shirts worn by the male characters, as well as their flashy weapons and ostentatious cars. Against this loud colour palette, Juliet’s simple, classic costumes radiate peace and innocence. It’s a hyper-real world reflecting the turmoil and intensity of young love.
Water is a unifying image throughout the film, beginning with the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet seen through the swimming blue-and-yellow fish in an aquarium (as seen in the clip above) and recurring in the swimming-pool scenes. The multiple levels of water symbolism encompass fluidity and distortion, purification and the idea of love melting individuals’ identity into union. These qualities are replicated in the fluidity of Romeo’s open shirts and Juliet’s floating dresses.
I'm never tired of what I do. To be constantly working with and researching fashion and design – who could ever get tired of that?
Moulin Rouge!: Unattainable Desire
An impossible love is also the central theme of Moulin Rouge! (2001). Nicole Kidman’s courtesan Satine is the antithesis of Juliet, in terms of youth and innocence, and her costumes are designed accordingly (by Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie). While archival research was the basis for the gowns Catherine and Angus designed for Kidman, the final outfits are not constrained by historical correctness.
Just as the soundtrack embraces a medley of contemporary pop songs, the costumes are deliberately anachronistic. As Catherine told The Guardian in 2001, ‘In order for the audience to suspend disbelief and be able to accept that the characters would actually break out into these songs, the whole world of the movie needed to look contrived’.
The dizzy underworld of the Moulin Rouge and its clientele is depicted in the extravagant, bejewelled and multicoloured can-can costumes, visible briefly in this excerpt from early in the film:
At the centre of Moulin Rouge! is the spectacle of the can-can. Historical can-can costumes relied on the revelation of layers of white ruffled petticoats and drawers with a split crutch beneath the relatively plain dance skirts, to titillate the wealthy male patrons of the Moulin Rouge.
Just like the original dancers, the film’s hero dancers have their own transgressive characters with exotic names like Nini Legs on the Wall, Pearly Queen, Baby Doll, Highlander, Antoinette (a stylised version of Marie Antoinette), China Doll and Harlequin. Catherine and Angus modified their can-can costumes to ameliorate censorship regulations but still embrace modern eroticism, using colourful frilled petticoats and provocatively decorated undergarments.
Baz envisioned a wild, dangerous, erotic dance with the richly coloured ruffles revealed beneath the skirts held up by each dancer moving toward the camera, legs flashing a challenge to the assembled crowds of men in their constrained, black formal attire. He described the line of dancers creating the visual illusion of a giant, moving coral reef with hidden fish suddenly flashing into view. Costume drawings and swatches in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition illustrate how a static concept transforms into a three-dimensional animated costume in the hands of the costume workroom seamstresses.
View a selection of the can-can dresses in the image gallery below:
The Ideal of Beauty
To be the tragic object of unattainable desire, Nicole Kidman's Satine had to be indisputably the most beautiful woman in Paris. As Catherine told The Guardian, 'While Kidman is already very beautiful, she may not be everybody’s ideal of beauty, so we needed to make it clear with the costumes' signs and symbols that that’s who she was. We looked to Hollywood’s glamour heroines like Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo – all sexually available to men in the movies but emotionally very unavailable, and we looked at how that manifested itself in their clothing. Their wardrobes tended to be very graphic, unfussy, dramatic in their colour choice.'
As Catherine's comments suggest, Bazmark films often include intertextual references to other great films and screen stars of the past, adding symbolic depth to the iconography incorporated into costuming. Satine’s iconic red dress references a costume worn by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge (John Huston, USA, 1952). Satine’s Black Diamond and Pink Diamond outfits nod to elements of Marilyn Monroe’s spangled leotards from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, USA, 1953) and Bus Stop (Joshua Logan, USA, 1956). The Hindi Wedding scene references French Can Can (1955), a French-Italian musical written by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin and Françoise Arnoul.
Meticulous attention to detail underpins the success of Angus and Catherine's creations. On display in Australians & Hollywood are the pink diamond gloves with gilt and diamante cuff and lace suspender belt, the top hat from the Black Diamond costume, a bespoke black-and-gold brocade corset and the elaborate headdress from the Hindi Wedding finale. It is these finer points of accessorising that help the actor to transition into their character and inhabit the larger-than-life world projected onto the big screen. Even a supporting character such as Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo) wears vintage gold, turn-of-the-century monogrammed cufflinks.
Visitors to the Australians & Hollywood exhibition can immerse themselves in the extraordinary sensory extravaganza of Moulin Rouge!, marvel at the ability of Nicole Kidman to move so freely while wearing such tightly fitting and constricting garments and gain a new respect and appreciation for the gifted teams of creatives who brought the vibrant Paris underworld to life.
A selection of costumes, props and materials from Baz Luhrmann-Catherine Martin collaborations, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, are on display at the NFSA as part of the Australians & Hollywood exhibition.
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Main image: John Leguizamo, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! (2001).
Image with quote: Catherine Martin at the Academy Awards, 2 March 2014, holding one of her Oscars for The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, Australia-USA, 2013).