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Baz Luhrmann’s aesthetic is the opposite of slow cinema. Rather than a contemplative experience, the audience gets a demonstrative display of vertiginous camera movement, fast editing and busy visual design that makes it hard to keep up. Even intimate scenes are loaded with distracting detail, so that the eye can’t rest for long. This is Luhrmann’s vision of modernity – it moves so fast you’re in danger of being left behind. The technique is assaultive and didactic, exhibitionism taken to extremes. ‘I want to show you something’, Gatsby says to Daisy before he reveals his scrapbook dedicated to her. This could be Luhrmann’s credo.

But the razzmatazz is not simply about dazzling with technique. There are technical set-pieces, but they’re thematically integrated and tied to character, which differentiates Luhrmann’s work from special effects extravaganzas in which the visual effects stand alone. Luhrmann’s films put technology at the service of story-telling and emotional affect – The Great Gatsby is no different: it uses 3D technology as a dramatic device. One of the virtuoso 3D set-pieces is the car ride in which Gatsby drives Nick in his flashy yellow vehicle across the bridge into the city, careering madly at hair-raising speed with the camera in impossible positions – in the middle of the road, on the bonnet, below the bumper, in the passenger seat, travelling on the running board or in mid-air. Fast editing contributes to the sense of speed and excitement as well as evoking the social turmoil of the period.

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In this sequence the death-defying driving alternates with personal exchanges in which Gatsby tries to impress Nick with his fabricated life story. If the 3D aspires to put the viewer in the scene during the driving, provoking a visceral response, in the conversations between the two men the windscreen acts as a barrier that creates a distance. The viewer is aligned with eternal watcher Nick, oscillating between inside and outside. Nick describes himself as ‘Within and without … enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.

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Barriers are created in other scenes too, denying the illusion given by 3D that viewers can touch actors and objects. Characters are positioned behind windows, the scene behind them obscure. In some cases the effect is like a pop-up book, lining up planes of vision, recalling the beginning of Moulin Rouge! (2001).

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The strategy of denying the viewer the illusion of touching is central to the story and Gatsby’s doomed desire to touch the green light and realise his dream of possessing Daisy. It transmits a powerful sense of loss: like Gatsby, we reach out to grasp something unattainable. And it intensifies the contradiction at the heart of cinema: the sense viewers have of being there yet being absent.

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Characteristically, Luhrmann and co’s innovative use of 3D reflects on the way viewers are implicated in the viewing experience as well as encapsulating Fitzgerald’s devastating critique of the American Dream. Delve beneath the show-stopping effects and you find cinematic gold.

© Pam Cook

Rosebud Daisy

You can’t really miss the references to Citizen Kane (1941) in The Great Gatsby (2013). From Gatsby’s  ‘incoherent’ mansion folly to the snowfall imagery and Gatsby’s whispered ‘Daisy’ as he dies, you’re left in no doubt that the filmmakers want you to get the parallels between the two tragic heroes brought down by hubris. There are more subtle references waiting to be teased out, but even the most obvious ones carry layers of meaning, often relayed by the intricate set and costume design that, as usual with Luhrmann and Martin, is the result of meticulous research and flawless attention to detail.

Kane’s secret, Rosebud, symbolising the loss of childhood innocence, blossoms into a full-blown visual metaphor in The Great Gatsby through the profusion of flower imagery. Exotic flowers and other natural iconography are central to the art deco style that dominates the set and costume design; they also echo the nineteenth-century Symbolist and Decadent art movements. Daisy’s black and white peony robe and the headscarf worn during the fleeting, nostalgic afternoon she spends with Gatsby and Nick Carraway recall Aubrey Beardsley’s designs for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894), while the oversized corsage on Myrtle’s outrageous red number is like something out of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

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Beardsley Salome

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Léon Jouhaud, 'Les fleurs du mal' (1919)
Léon Jouhaud, ‘Les fleurs du mal’ (1919)

Myrtle and Tom’s fantastically gaudy, colour-saturated Harlem apartment, scene of illicit sexual liaisons and desperate hedonism, overflows with flower imagery (note the Fragonard prints on the pink sofa) – you can almost smell the cheap floral scent mingling with booze and other illegal substances as the giddy party people spiral towards oblivion. Gatsby’s mansion and the Buchanan house are the other side of this seductive vision of decadence: the Buchanan’s place has elegant silk floral wallpaper that whispers ‘old money’ while Gatsby’s overblown flower arrangements and the daisy motif inscribed on his art deco floor advertise his newly-rich status (and his obsession). At the other extreme, the cottage where Nick Carraway lives, also festooned with blooms, appears innocent and idyllic, a haven amid the corruption and decadence that surrounds him.

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The sets are designed to conjure up a fairytale world, and it’s no surprise that the film’s floral motifs evoke popular myths and stories surrounding flowers, many of which relate to love. One meaning attached to the daisy is loyal love; at the same time, it forms the fickle centre of the game ‘She loves me, she loves me not’, in which its petals are torn off one by one until the player gets the answer to their question. There could hardly be a more resonant metaphor for Gatsby’s insecure relationship to Daisy. The white roses cascading over Nick’s porch symbolise innocence, but also (appropriately for a character who guards so many secrets) silence and secrecy. A white rosebud invokes youth and beauty: the buttonholes worn by Tom and Nick at Gatsby’s party underline the passage of time and loss of innocence at the heart of The Great Gatsby‘s romantic vision. At the tea party staged to impress Daisy, Nick’s relatively austere place is transformed by Gatsby’s anxiety into a florist’s emporium overwhelmed by orchids, which connote love and beauty, visualising the translation of his excessive (and impossible) desire into things.

Nick Rosebud

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In this scene, with Nick as a witness, Daisy and Gatsby’s love is apparently rekindled and hope revived. Daisy’s association with flowers is marked in her lilac dress and gloves made of floral-patterned lace – but what are we to make of the epaulettes and skirt fashioned from drooping pieces of grey fabric that look like fading petals? The motif of dropping petals is echoed in other gowns worn by Daisy: she first appears in a white concoction fashioned from falling petals, and in the Daisy character poster (top of page) she’s wearing a rosebud-pink version of the same dress. This emphasises her own fragility, her elusiveness in Gatsby’s imagination, the passage of time and the inevitability of death.

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When Daisy and Gatsby slip away from the party to meet secretly in his enchanted garden they are shrouded in shadow. Blue light picks up the flowers and Gatsby’s suit, echoing the blue hydrangeas on the terrace, one of whose meanings is heartlessness. In contrast to the lush vegetation, Daisy’s dress and jewels glitter with a hard, metallic sheen, intimating the carelessness that Nick finally sees in her. The Tiffany jewellery mirrors the flower imagery, signalling Daisy’s attachment to wealth and status and her brittle outer shell.

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Carrie Mulligan in Gatsby

The flower symbolism in The Great Gatsby adds layers of meaning to this richly textured film. Together with the haunting music it visualises themes of love, hope, death and melancholy. A distinctive style feature, it’s there in the credits and in the Bazmark logo that appears on screen, marking its importance in the overall design concept.

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© Pam Cook