A splash of red is rarely just a splash of red. Often it symbolises death. Two girls in red coats – one in Don’t Look Now (1973) and one in Schindler’s List (1993) – are tragic figures haunting film history. A woman lies dying in a house full of red walls in Cries and Whispers (1972). The moment of death is bloodless, as the colour of her spent lifeforce is outsourced to the walls.
Plenty of films are less coy about bloodshed and whole genres are built on gore. It would be easy to fill every spot on this list with slashers and gialli, creating a similar impression to the elevator doors opening in The Shining (1980).
Although there does seem to be a theme of sadness, loss, violence and death to movies that make the most unabashed use of red, it is also the colour of passion. Sometimes primal feelings are too much for gentle or defeated people to confront. Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar Wai use red in their production designs to express what their characters cannot.
To lighten the mood: enter the scarlet seductress. “She is always alluring,” says Catherine Bray in her Inside Cinema video essay, Women in Red. One such siren adds sparkle to this list: it’s Marilyn Monroe, the greatest bombshell who ever lived in her star-making role.
The Red Balloon is a seemingly simple children’s film that won an Academy Award in 1956. Its use of red in both visual and emotional terms is the gold standard.
Cries and Whispers is back in cinemas for its 50th anniversary from 1 April 2022.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
As Brian De Palma would do later in Carrie (1976), Powell and Pressburger (the filmmaking duo known as The Archers) complement their use of visceral vermillion with the natural locks of a red-headed woman. Moira Shearer plays the ill-fated Vicky, an ingenue ballet-dancer beckoned under the oppressive wing of dance impresario Boris Lermontov (a brilliantly villainous Anton Walbrook, who is awarded the most memorable lines). Vicky is cast in the ballet of The Red Shoes, about a bewitched pair of ballet shoes that cause their wearer to dance themselves to death. The score is written by a young composer, also a redhead, and they fall in love, to the disapproval of Lermontov.
When Vicky is invited into a room to be offered the lead part, each figure of authority is surrounded by a splash of red, a portent of things to come. The Archers make a motif of red, white and blue, dressing Shearer, with her porcelain skin and auburn hair, in a colour wheel of blues.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Director: Howard Hawks
For the opening number of Howard Hawks’ Technicolor musical, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell sing about being two little girls from Little Rock, while shimmying in red sequin gowns split in all the right places. These are dazzling show-stopping outfits that cause a Roger Rabbit eyes-popping-out-of-head effect in the viewer. This was the film that made Monroe an above-the-title star, and her presence as Lorelei Lee, a pragmatic gold-digger opposite Russell’s fool-for-love Dorothy is just as thrilling today as it was nearly 70 years ago.
Costume designer William Travilla received plaudits for the fuschia pink gown and gloves Monroe wore to sing ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, a number that takes place against a rose background while Monroe, more fluid than solid and dripping in diamonds, is pursued by goggle-eyed male dancers in candy-striped sashes. Something she wears, whatever the outfit, is a slick of come-hither red lipstick.
The Red Balloon (1956)
Director: Albert Lamorisse
The Red Balloon holds the accolade of being the only short film to have won best original screenplay at the Academy Awards. This shows sophistication on behalf of the Academy, because barely a word is spoken in this 35-minute family film about a young boy, Pascal, son of director Albert Lamorisse, who finds a juicy red balloon with a mind of its own.
Muted greys dominate the Parisian neighbourhood of Ménilmontant where Pascal roams, so the balloon pops out of the frame like a glacé cherry in smog. It is a playful creature that enjoys leaping out of the way of adults that reach for its string, retaining patient loyalty to Pascal by following him. Of course, such a gorgeous vibrant balloon draws envy. The sense of peril when neighbourhood boys give chase is a testament to the spare, clean dramatic lines generated by Lamorisse (who also invented the board game Risk). The red balloon represents anything you want it to. That is its beauty.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cries and Whispers was inspired by a recurring dream that Ingmar Bergman had of four women in white clothing whispering to each other in a red room. Like many of the films on this list, a statement of intent is present from the first title card, as orange-red fills an otherwise blank screen. Bergman repeats this colourful blank screen as a pause after climaxes in his domestic drama about three sisters – one of whom, Agnes (Hariet Andersson), is dying in bed – and their live-in maid.
The women almost look like angels floating about a hellscape, as every room has red walls. Once Agnes dies, the remaining two sisters recast themselves as hamstrung by petty concerns, with the maid emerging as having had the purest love for the deceased. The most visceral moment involves shards of glass and a vagina, as if to prove that life is messier than death.
Director: Brian De Palma
Pig’s blood, a red convertible, Sissy Spacek’s hair, wine-coloured candles and a pale pink dress seen as red through a fundamentalist mother’s eyes. These are some of the key ingredients of Carrie. Brian De Palma adapted Stephen King’s novel, which is one of the saddest horror tales in existence. Humiliation and rejection push Carrie White (white is an invitation to red), the shy loner with telekinetic powers, towards a finale of destruction. This bursts out of her as the culmination of feelings so powerful that they cause literal combustions.
Lured into a sweet and short-lived feeling of belonging at high-school prom, only to have pig’s blood poured on her during a moment in the limelight, Carrie snaps, pushed to the edge by her violent mother. Hers is not a maniacal-laughter mode of vengeance; it is grief-fuelled. The red that has dripped steadily since the opening scene, where she gets her period, erupts in a torrent that makes a mockery of the fire trucks that arrive on the scene too late.
Director: Dario Argento
The prime colour of Dario Argento’s body of work is characterised by the title of his 1975 film, Deep Red, itself inspiration for a modern giallo film by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani called The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) – surely the most poetic description of blood.
Argento’s most famous film, Suspiria, follows American ballet student Suzy as she arrives at a creepy dance academy in Germany. Red light, torrential rain, an ominous Goblin score and a student fleeing through the woods mark her first night in town. The next day she returns to the academy housed in a sensational gothic building with an ornate red and gold facade. Inside, it is all pink walls, witchy symbols, creaky corridors and stained glass, ideal for bodies to crash through. Argento was inspired to reproduce the saturated colours of Technicolor Disney films, meaning that deaths are marked by blood pooling in a shocking neon red.
Three Colours: Red (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
The final film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy proved a swansong, as he died two years after its release. Each film represented a different colour on the French flag and a different ideal of the French Republic. Blue was liberty, white equality and red fraternity. Irène Jacob plays a young model, Valentine, who forms a friendship with a misanthropic retired judge who is spying on his neighbours. She turns up at his house by reading the address on the collar of a dog she hits with her car, thick dog-blood glooping out. Valentine does a shoot for a chewing gum advert with her Ferrari-red jumper matching the backdrop. The resulting image hangs by a traffic light, and the most iconic composition features a red car stopped by a red light under the advert.
Kieslowski does a complicated thing here in illustrating a corny idea, like the connectedness of all things, in a mysterious and sophisticated way. The use of red, like his overall artistry, is pointed but never heavy-handed.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Wong Kar Wai’s study of unconsummated desire revolves around two neighbours in 1960s British Hong Kong, Mr Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung), who realise that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Both lonely, they strike up a friendship but vow “not to be as bad as them”. This isn’t to say they aren’t tempted.
As they spend more time in Mr Chan’s rented apartment, red begins to show up with increasing vehemence in a production design previously dominated by shadows. A corridor is lined by candy-apple curtains, Mrs Chan perches on a carmine bedspread. Urges they dare not articulate are expressed through colour in the spaces they occupy. It’s a gorgeous and thorough use of location as an extension of character, leaving Cheung and Leung free to channel an exquisite restraint, as their more carnal sides are taken care of visually.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay does not show the blood that 15-year-old Kevin spills after he turns a bow and arrow on his classmates. Instead, a red river roils from the opening dream sequence as Kevin’s mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), visualises herself splattered with tomatoes at the Spanish festival, La Tomatina.
Children’s toys in eye-popping strawberry decorate a timeline set in her past family home as she searches her memory for clues about her sociopathic son. In the present timeline, she lives alone as a pariah, remembering the flashing siren of an ambulance and living off a diet of Merlot and ketchup-splashed eggs. On seeing the mother of one of Kevin’s victims in the supermarket, she hides behind a row of Campbell’s soup cans. Vandals cover her house and car in red paint. The paint sticks to her hair and hands, and, like a maternal Lady Macbeth, she can’t seem to wash it off.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
A red dress is the backdrop to the opening title credits in Almodóvar’s drama about maternal suffering, adapted from three short stories (‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’) by Canadian novelist Alice Munro. Known for his vivid production designs, Almodóvar has form with studies in scarlet – see also supernatural film noir Volver (2006) and Tilda Swinton heartbreak vehicle The Human Voice (2020). In Julieta, bright red pops up with metronomic regularity through wardrobe, accessories and furnishing choices. The colour underlines the pain in Julieta’s heart after her teenage daughter, Antía, leaves for a mountain retreat and never returns home. Decades pass and Julieta is shown living in a subdued fashion, moving to a new house in a new neighbourhood, away from the house she shared with her daughter.
A pale colour scheme represents her attempt to keep life contained in the present. But after she runs into a friend of Antía in the street, red returns, reminding us of what pumps beneath her controlled surface.