With 2019 ringing in, it’s only fitting that we have at least one film about the dawn of a new year, a new era if you will. Thankfully, you need not look further than World Fair, the latest period piece from visionary director Baz Luhrmann.
Set at the turn of the century, World Fair is a simple but elegantly crafted tale of passion, despair, and bombast. It stars Rami Malek and Brie Larson, and is set in Paris, 1900, during the turn-of-the-century world fair: The Exposition Universelle (spoiler territory ahead).
We open with a forlorn Malek as Gustave Eiffel, standing on top of his tower, overlooking Paris – a drab, bleak, black and white shot. The narrator (voiced by the ineffable Morgan Freeman) tells us that it has been five years since Gustave last saw her. We cut briefly to a shot of Freeman, who works as an elevator operator at the tower, before panning back to Malek. Now, at the end of his rope, Gustave wants to end it all and throw himself from the tower. How ironic, a death at the hands of his own creation (that’s literally one of the narrator’s lines – Luhrmann is nothing if not heavy-handed).
But then the world brightens. Malek disappears, the camera flies over the city, color is added, and we rewind to five years prior, at the opening of the world fair. And of course there’s a deliberately anachronistic opening number. What Luhrmann film would be complete without it? The song is Stressed Out by Twenty One Pilots – especially heavy-handed given the line: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days.”
But my groaning at Luhrmann’s on-the-nose style was replaced with delight as the saxophone solo kicked in. This was the era of jazz after all. The song fluidly blends into a swinging, big band rendition of Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity as we soar from one exhibit to the next. This fair is popping with life, brimming with detail, and stuffed with culture and technology. The entire sequence lasts nearly twenty minutes, but it’s an exhilarating ride, and well worth the price of admission.
We then cut to a slightly younger Gustave, once again on top of the tower, lit up brilliantly against the night sky. Tens of thousands are gathered around the base, eager to see it unveiled (a quick aside – the tower was actually showcased at the 1889 fair eleven years earlier, but Luhrmann took artistic license for the sake of the story). Gustave gives a brief congratulatory speech, the crowd cheers, and fireworks go off. And as you might have guessed, we’re treated to a deliriously upbeat French rendition of Katy Perry’s Firework.
The next day, Gustave explores the fair, and runs into a young woman named Le Doux Amoureux, or ‘Sweet’ for short (Larson). Gustave is enraptured, and the two of them traverse the fair together. As their romance blossoms, Luhrmann serves us a steaming buffet of musical and cultural treats, most notably the ‘Taste of Mexico’ exhibit, which boasts an impressive salsa dance sequence set to Despacito.
But this fling is short-lived. Gustave and Sweet enter the Luminarium, a sprawling domed courtyard with cutting-edge technical marvels. At the center is a one Nikola Tesla (Billy Zane, whose performance as the legendary inventor is spellbinding). Tesla has created a Levitator – a chair suspended between two thirty-foot, two-ton coils, which floats when the coils surge with electricity.
Sweet, played with breathtaking sincerity by Larson, is mesmerized by Tesla and volunteers to try out his contraption. This sequence is quite literally electrifying: 2WEI’s remake of Toxic (see video) perfectly captures the ambience. As Sweet rises and lightning crackles, Gustave realizes that he’s losing her, and that she is falling for Tesla.
The story powers on – Sweet and Gustave drift further apart as they go from one exhibit to the next. This culminates in a performance of Romeo and Juliet in a mock Orpheum theater at the Little Britain exhibit. As the two share one final moment in the back of the theater, a slow, piano-only cover of Taylor Swift’s Love Story fades in. And then it cuts abruptly just before the final chorus as Sweet says that she doesn’t love Gustave. We see a closeup of Gustave weeping, with an out-of-focus Sweet running off with Tesla in the background.
Gustave leaves the fair and wanders the streets of Paris alone. In one of the most poignant montages of the last decade, he sings a gender-swapped version of Eponine’s On my Own from Les Miserables. Flashes of the fair remind us of how fleeting and temporary this love was.
Luhrmann’s technique is innovative here – as Gustave trudges on, the world around him moves quickly, like a time lapse, a metaphor for his stubborn grip on the past. The color also drains, the city once again becoming dreary. We end the sequence right where we found him. Trapped in a black and white world, contemplating suicide, with Morgan Freeman expositing.
Then we see her: Sweet. Gustave turns around in amazement. Her flickering skin leads us to believe that she is a figment of his imagination, but one so believable that he doesn’t care. She tells him that he needs to move on, he tells her that he never felt alive before they met. After some persuasion on Sweet’s part, he finally agrees that he needs to stop living in the past. But she offers him one last trip down memory lane, one final reminiscence before he lets her go.
And then the grand finale. A whirlwind of life and returning color as the two run through the city. Memories of the fair crop up around them – again, all a dream for Gustave, but a necessary one if he is to cope with the transition. A toe-tapping cover of Everybody Dance Now accompanies the visual splendor, and as the couple runs through each region of the fair, the language of the song changes (English to French to German, etc.). We end with a parting shot of Gustave wishing Sweet farewell. And all under the tender eye of Morgan Freeman, who is watching Gustave relive his first romance from atop the tower.
From a technical, emotional, and crowd-pleasing perspective, World Fair is yet another jewel in Luhrmann’s crown. Those expecting historical accuracy will surely be disappointed, but those expecting sheer entertainment will be rewarded. I haven’t had this much fun since Moulin Rouge!, and I eagerly await Luhrmann’s next musical escapade.