Red is probably the most charged of all primary colours. Reminiscent of roses, blood and fire and emblematic of love, passion and lust, colour red accompanies all of these things and situations in life that are intense, beautiful or mysterious.
It is as known, as it is intelligible, that all colours function in a way that provokes human psychological responses. Each and every one of them is followed by impressions that have to do with the way that it interacts with the mind of the viewer. Furthermore, different cultures and societies provide colours with even more semantic dimensions.
Red has undoubtedly a unique ability to awaken great feelings and thoughts to spectators. This is a reason why it is usually preferred by filmmakers and cinematographers that want to transfer powerful images to their audiences. If colours in general are essential constituents of a film’s mise-en-scène, capable of bearing meanings, symbolisms and emotional undertones red is in particular the one to accelerate this empathising process.
In this list one can find movie titles that manifest different cinematic uses of colour red. From horror films to romantic comedies and art-house films to blockbusters, red seems to be utilised to express multifarious feelings that interact with the audiences both in a conscious and a sub-conscious level.
The examples below showcase the wide capacity of a colour to incorporate nuances that appeal simultaneously to human emotions, psychology and mind as it was realised and actualised by various directors in the history of cinema.
1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
In the Mood for Love is probably Wong Kar-wai’s most highly praised film and it owes a huge part of its visual and intellectual appeal to colour red.
The magnificent cheongsam dresses of Maggie Cheung, the retro tapestry covering the walls of the tiny Hong Kong rooms and apartments, the dancing curtains and warm bed covers are all painted in hues of red. This is partly a by-product of Christopher Doyle’s canny and stirring cinematography that complements Wong Kar-wai’s obsession with warm, saturated colours.
Red expresses first of all what is so eloquently phrased in the title of the film: love, the need to love and be loved. The two protagonists of the movie have a rough time as they are both cheated by their unfaithful spouses.
Throughout a reconstruction and a re-enactment of this traumatic event, they verge into a trip into their own feelings that are based on the contradiction of being betrayed but still experiencing a natural call to feel passion and desire.
Red becomes, therefore, an incarnation of this exact contradiction: grief against the will to live and condemnation against exsanguination. In the Mood of Love is chiefly a film that negotiates traumas, hopes and fears. And all of these abstract but coherent notions could be substantiated in no other colour than red.
2. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)
Red is indisputably a central motif in American Beauty. It can be detected in most of the scenes of the film, brushing furniture, household appliances, accessories and clothes. Its most compelling manifestation, however, is expressed through red roses that can be traced almost everywhere.
In Lester’s garden, inside the vases located in different buildings, in the form of bouquets or petals. Probably the most recognisable image of the film, that where Lester’s object of desire is laying naked inside a bathtub, is saturated in red petals that construct the man’s very dream-scape.
The middle aged man is representative of a suburban kind of life. Red, in the shapes that it takes inside the film’s mise-en-scène, is indicative of his repressed lust, agony and anger. Lester wants to break free from the routine that he chose for himself. The young and lascivious Angela is an embodiment of everything that he has been hiding under the veil of a supposedly perfect and peaceful life.
In the face of the temptation that she imposes on him, all of the hidden emotions spring out of his unconscious. Interestingly enough their encounter that starts with scarlet red roses will end up in a red of a different substance: that of the dying Lester’s blood. Passion, birth of desire and the death of it: it all gets initiated and finished in different shades of vermilion.
3. Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
Belle de Jour is Bunuel’s very first colour film. The godfather of surrealism establishes a unique detached but alluring cinematic atmosphere around Catherine Deneuve’s character: a young married woman who decides to become a prostitute in order to satisfy her sexual desires.
Being inside a marriage that provides her with no physical intimate pleasures, she decides to act upon her fantasies that include a promiscuous type of behaviour. Her lust and animalistic, but natural, instincts have to find a response that has nothing to do though with the discovery of true love or any other high praised ideal.
In the opening sequence of the film, Belle de Jour (the nickname that the woman gets when she starts working as a prostitute) is placed inside a dreamy environment. She is inside a carriage, sitting next to her husband, heading towards an unknown direction. When, after the man’s order, the horses stop moving, the woman gets dragged outside it, she is tied on a tree and is molested by the two drivers of the cab who whip her with the blessings of her own husband.
The sequence is marked by the red coloured red dress that the heroine is wearing and paves the way for the continuation of the salacious overarching plot that is going to follow. Deneuve keeps on getting dressed on red outfits in various instances of the film and the colour arises as a clear articulation of carnal pleasure’s and lust’s natural magnetism.
4. Sin City (Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez, 2005)
One of the reasons why colour red so easily stands out inside cinematic environments is its inherent ability to perfectly contrast other colours. This is a fact that Sin City exploits to the very core. Black and white on its basis, the rare but sharp-witted uses of red seem like an oasis in the desert of the highly stylised absence of colour.
Red in this film assumes more of a decorative value than a symbolic or metaphorical operation. It embellishes the already dashing appearance of the film and designates it as a delicious eye candy.
The ruby lipstick of Eva Green, the converse all-stars shoes of Elijah Wood, the car that Bruce Willis drives, the bed covers of Jessica Alba are emerging as pop culture items through their colourful appeal. Red, once again, is used as an epitome of female sexuality, lust, power and death.
All of these elements together blend perfectly with each other in order to produce a film viewing experience that is cool and deeply enjoyable. Furthermore, red fits perfectly with the personas of Sin City’s creators. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, cornerstones of modern extreme fiction could create nothing that resists the colour of blood.
5. Three Colours: Red (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)
The last instalment of Kieślowski’s colour trilogy is the perfect homage to all shades of red. The colour operates in various levels inside the film: it affects and defines the dramaturgy, the narrative and the aesthetics.
The main heroine is encircled by red objects throughout the whole film: most of her clothes, the walls of her house and its decoration are all red. Furthermore, the places that she visits and the surroundings of the people she meets are also saturated in warm shades. Even her own name, Valentine, echoes the same colour through its meaning that is synonymous to love, passion and affection.
A great example of the colour’s capacity to embody feelings, memories, actions and reactions can be traced in a red jacket that Valentine has inside her room. At first the clothe looks like just another item that contributes in the chromatic harmony of the film. Later, though, the viewers are informed that it is connected to her lover. The jacket, therefore, becomes an object that represents the nature of a love relationship through its chromatic eloquence.
Three Colours: Red is undeniably a dithyrambic approach to the colour’s ability to express a wide range of emotions: from passion to danger and from hope to disappointment, indicating all of the idiosyncrasies that a love affair so naturally entails.
6. The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956)
The Oscar award-winning The Red Balloon narrates the short, minimalistic story of a young boy that one day crosses roads with a big, vivid coloured red balloon. The boy soon realises that the balloon has its own intelligence and is able to take decisions on its own, following him everywhere he goes and being his constant companion throughout his daily activities. The colour is representative of most of the values of childhood, as they contrast themselves to the monotony of the world of the grown-ups.
The red balloon, therefore, emerges, once again, as a symbol of dreams and the inherent oblivion and innocence of youth. It is no coincidence that the toy follows the boy no matter why. When his mother doesn’t allow it to come inside their house it keeps being close to the boy gazing towards him outside his window.
When it enters the classroom, it provokes the angry responses of the boy’s classmates and other children on the street face it with jealousy and suspicion. The red balloon, therefore, becomes an embodiment of the unstoppable power of children’s energy. No matter the obstacles and the obstructions it is omnipresent both in joy and sorrow, for better or worse.
7. I’m a Cyborg but that’s OK (Park Chan-wook, 2006)
I’m a cyborg but that’s OK is Park Chan-wook’s one and only contribution in the romantic-comedy genre. It features a young girl, Young-goon, who is hospitalised into a psychiatric institution, after a supposed suicide attempt. Young-goon’s pathology stems from her belief that she is a robot and therefore refuses to operate in a human way.
Inside the institution she is going to meet Il-soon, a schizophrenic, kleptomaniac man that will quickly fall for her. The film is mainly characterised by cold or neutral colours: blue, green and white decorate the dominant visual elements.
Interestingly enough, though, in one particular key scene of the film, the main heroine is dressed in a vivid scarlet red outfit that contrasts the overall chromatic coherence of the movie. In that scene Young-goon is working in a factory, before being hospitalised, and suddenly cuts her veins in an effort to connect them wires that befit her cyborg nature. This act is the one that fuels the very start and the evolution of the film’s narrative.
Red, therefore, can be seen as the girl’s determination to show her true nature and fight for it, even if that demands sacrificing a huge part of herself: her humanity. That is the only point of the film where the viewers have the chance to witness such a radiant colour manifestation, probably because it is a marker of Young-goon’s emancipation and strive for individuality.
8. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Steven Spielberg’s epochal film is shot almost exclusively in black and white. There are , however, two exceptions that break the chromatic consistency of the movie. The first of them can be traced in the opening scene, which is shot in colour and features a pair of hands that light two candles for the Sabbath.
The candles are the objects that rule the whole sequence and as the latter is heading towards its end the red flame of an almost completely burned candle transforms to dense smoke that slowly evaporates and gives its place to the next, black and white sequence.
The absence of colour inside the film is employed for various reasons: it lends a documentary style to the overall appearance of the film, fits perfectly with the tragic nature of its narrative and elevates the shades that render the faces of the heroes.
The gloomy black and white uniformity of the film will get disrupted, for the second time, through the figure of a little girl that is dressed in a red coat. This girl was meant to become one of the most characteristic symbols that can be found in contemporary films. The colour red that marks her appearance bears plenty of meanings inside the context of the movie. It represents the innocence and joy of childhood that collide with the death and monstrosity of the Holocaust.
Furthermore, the moment that Schindler’s eyes catch the figure of the girl indicates a change deep inside him, a realisation of the animosity that is inflicted on Jews and humanity. This very collision becomes evident the second time that the girl with the red coat appears, this time within a pile of dead bodies. Red, therefore, becomes a reminder for both Schindler and the viewer of all the purity and love that was lost in the fires of the Holocaust.
9. Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998)
Pleasantville is another case of a -partly- black and white film that uses colour as a storytelling devise. David and Jennifer are two typical teenage siblings that live their lives in the glorious 1990s. Having two exact opposite personalities, they fight with each other and they care for different things in life. One day a mysterious man will give them a non-conventional remote control that will transfer them into the reality of a 1950’s black and white sitcom that takes place in the town of Pleasantville.
The absence of any colourful shade in the small and picturesque town signifies the routine and monotony of its residents’ lives. Every single gesture and movement that they make seems to be choreographed in the style of a soap-opera. David and Jennifer, coming from the colourful future, will bring changes to the fictional landscape, inserting colours to objects and people.
Red is important inside the framework of this film not because of its over-abundance but due to its introduction in key moments of the plot. It is the very first colour to be introduced in Pleasantville, through the form of a rose. A scarlet rose: symbol of life, passion, sexuality and youth represents the role that the two protagonists play in the boring town. They are there to awaken forgotten feelings and emotions and break the routine of a tedious and literally scripted lifestyle.