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Colour Use In A Peter Greenawat Movie Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4926 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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How does colour achieve emotional impact in the film 'The Cook the Thief, his Wife and her Lover' (1989) Directed by Peter Greenaway.

The strong use of colour used in 'The Cook the Thief, his wife and her Lover' (1989) directed by Peter Greenaway has a direct impact on the spectators emotions and feelings through the film. The links between the actions of the characters and the content of the story mirror the choice of colour when we look at what different colours are associated with different feelings in western culture. The connection to seventeenth century Dutch paintings is extremely dominant throughout the film and ties in with the symbolic meanings that Dutch still life painting is so intrinsically linked too as well as the symbolism of colour. In this essay I have analysed the links between colour and seventeenth century paintings and referenced Greenaway's experimentation and abstract use of colour to the early cinema movement Absolute Film and 20th century artists such as Kandinsky and his theories of colour in motion. I hope to show that colour is an important part of this film that evokes feelings and emotions on the spectator with influence of symbolism and Dutch paintings, and in its own right creates another character driving the narrative forward and bringing the film together.

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Looking through the history of early cinema and the emergence of colour, it is interesting to note the reasons for bringing colour in to film. Silent cinema filmmakers were intrigued by colour because they could see its dramatic potential, rather than looking at its ability to portray a greater sense of reality. At the beginning of the 20th Century, modernism was coming to the foreground; art movements such as cubism, expressionism and abstraction were impacting on mass culture in everyday life. Colour used in advertisement, paintings and architecture were being inspired to take up these movements for inspiration and this experimentation of colour translated into film (Yumibe, 2007 p.49). Colour featured in many of the earliest films as a way of attracting audiences and enhancing aesthetic and dramatic impact of the narrative; the exact reason why we use colour in film today. One of the earliest examples of using colour for its dramatic potential is a Pathé Film 'Le Contremaitre Incendiaire/ The Incendiary Foreman' made in 1908. In the film they jump cut from the cold colour blue to rich hot reds in the hope it would shock and appeal to the spectator's senses. In Joshua Yumibe essay, 'Silent Cinema Colour Aesthetics' (Yumibe, 2007) He argued that the use of colour in these early cinema films was 'being harnessed in a coded way to work through the senses and, by association, to affect the emotions and moods of the spectators.' (Yumibe, 2007 p. 53) For an audience in the early 20th century who had not seen colour being used in such a way, they found this extremely effective. Now a days, although film makers follow the lines of using colour to create emotions or moods, it is now done in more subtle ways to produce a deeper more meaningful film portraying a realistic sense of the world. In early cinema colour was not used to create a sense of realism; it actually represented the unrealistic fantasy worlds, whilst black and white film signifyed the realistic world.

Fig. 1 Composition VI (1913) Kandinsky

If we look back to the artists who were emerging at the beginning of the 20th century such as Kandinsky, Survage and Picasso, and their interest in colour abstraction and theories on colour, especially Kandinsky, we can see it had some influence on early film. Looking at Kandinsky's style of painting and his theories, for example, Kandinsky's Composition VI and his other compositions, his primary concern was to evoke a spiritual resonance with the viewer and artist. Kandinsky wanted to put the viewer in the situation of experiencing his paintings in the hope it would evoke senses of desperation, confusion and urgency as well as creating the sense of it being dreamlike and the painters head towards an 'epoch to great spiritual leaders. (Kandinisky, 2004 p. 65) According to Kandinsky people who looked and contemplated his paintings, would be able to reach a meditative state. He wanted to draw the viewer in to a meditative trance to encourage a higher state of consciousness (Kandinsky, 2004 p.65). Even the notion of colour representing the fantasy world, can be linked to wanting to create a dreamlike world.

Fig 2. Three stills from 'Opus I' (1921) Directed by Walter Ruttman

This sense of 'meditative trance' and abstraction was something that film makers and artists wanted to experiment using film. One example of a film movement that took this idea from artists is the experimental film movement of Absolute film. It was formed in the 1920s by the German Walter Ruttmann, and his contemporaries Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger and a Swede called Viking Eggeling, all of which were interested at looking at the abstraction in motion. Ruttman studied painting and architecture, and wanted to experiment with film to show the expression and the meditative form of paintings injecting music and motion to create an abstract motion that painting could not achieve. To put this in practise the film movement focused on 'Rhythm, abstract, mathematical construction, colour repetition, and setting colour in motion' (Elder2008p. 82). Ruttmann's first two abstract films were 'Opus I' (1921) and 'Opus II' (1923). 'Opus I' consist of shapes of colour protruding the screen, creating rhythm. Ruttman then injects different colours whilst flashes of large and small shaped colours explode across the screen, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation. In 'Harmony and Dissent' (2008) by Elder, he describes of a music publisher who was interested in the movement called Arnold Schönburg and wanted to collaborate with Kandinsky when filming his second opera 'Die Glückiche Hand' ('The Lucky Hand'). His reason for wanting to film the opera was because he wanted 'The utmost unreality' (Schönburg n.b, cited in Elder 2008 p.82) Kandinsky's roll was to design from Schönburg's brief and once it was filmed, Kandinsky would paint and colour the film. This association with wanting Kandinsky to create his unrealistic world and matching it to music shows how his work and other art movements where informing and shaping film. It illustrates that Kandinsky's dreamlike meditative state was reaching to people's consciousness, and wanted to create a work of art using film. Elder argued that what Schönburg wanted from film was 'to escape from everything fixed, stable, and enduring… [film] could serve as hieroglyphs of the unknown, to elevate the mind and disclose something of the nature of higher reality (though holding forever in the embrace of greater mystery).' (Elder 2008 p.82)

Unfortunately the opera was never made, but Kandinsky himself had proposed a stage piece called 'Die Gelbe Klang' ('The Yellow Sand') which he was also intending to film according to Gabriele Munter another German Expressionist painter (Elder 2008 p. 83). However when Kandinsky has discussed film he has stated that between one quality to another, for example music and character, are actually 'external' from each other, it's is only by the audience being conditioned 'through association' and 'constantly repeated action' (Kandinsky, 2004 pp.59, 92) that the audience are able to relate these two qualities together. Therefore Kandinsky argued that in order for an artist to combine different media and forms including colour, they must 'apprehend the spiritual truth contained in the inner natures' only then could the artist create a unity of 'true integration of these diverse elements' (Elder 2008 pp.84-85) This idea of qualities unifying together and becoming integrated so that they are obscured into one, is undeniably something that Greenaway has successfully created in his film 'The Cook, the Thief his Wife and her Lover'. His use of colour almost creates its own character, combined with the layers of symbolic meaning helps drive the narrative forward. Much like early cinema, Greenaway's experimental use of colour in fact takes the realistic out and imposes a surreal environment with layer upon layer of symbolic meaning. The repetition of colour and the figurative movement of colour explore the ideas of Absolute film creating a film that exceeds any boundaries of generic film making and produces something approaching a nightmare fantasy world and integrates his own work to the reach the level of art. Moreover as well as using colour, Greenaway links 17th century Dutch paintings and the intrinsic symbolic meanings carried with these paintings, and by merging colour with these symbols help bring the film together.

Furthermore colour is a tool in film to emphasise character, narrative, plot and themes and Greenaway's film 'The Cook, the Thief his Wife and her lover' is a perfect example of the numerous ways of using colour. He has not just used colour technically and for the purpose of making the film look beautiful, but has used colour through movement and symbolism making explicit links to Dutch paintings of the 17th Century. Greenaway capitalises on associations with colour and emotions, directing our feelings during the film. Louis Cheskin stated that we feel 'colour sensations' (Cheskin 1951 p.12) but many of us are unaware of the influence of colour. He noted that when people were in a blue environment it would have a calm sedative affect on some whilst on others became depressed if they were confronted with a strong blue. The colour red would do the opposite and would make people feel agitated and in some stronger reds feelings such as anger arose. Greenaway uses the psychology of colour to inform feelings and emotions throughout the film, particularly the colour red, building a richer more interactive sense of horrid torment Albert Spica takes control of. Nevertheless it is important to realise that our understanding of such symbols is entirely based upon cultural awareness. This means that colour can not be relied upon to enforce a given meaning, but must be read within the context of the film, and in relation to cultural awareness and perhaps from the experiences of the spectator.

Peter Greenaway is widely known as a filmmaker, yet he originally studied art to become a painter, later becoming interested in European cinema (EGS n.d.). His early study of painting has heavily influenced his films and when analysing his films, we must take into account not only the genre's of cinema but concepts from the history of western painting starting from the renaissance, right up to contemporary art. Many of Peter Greenaway's work are packed with symbols and his use of imagery is fascinating. He cleverly integrates art imagery from art movements, mainly originating from European painting, bringing in visual and symbolic motifs which create stimulating and emotionally charged imagery that immediately intrigues the spectator as he brings this to life on screen.

Greenaway's film 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover' is influenced by Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century. He frequently depicts the lavish furnishings of the restaurant, the diner's costumes and the different items of foods are immediately recognisable to be that of still life and banqueting paintings of Dutch 17th Century paintings. Within these paintings, in particular still life, Dutch artists would contain metaphors and motifs linking back to everyday life, and often would have an omen to the material man like Albert Spica. From the Dutch painting by Jan Caspar Luiken, Dutch, 1672-1708, 'The Painter's Craft':

'The Painter. What the eye sees is not the most essential.

Art shows us an illusion.

What the essence of its subject is

Like the great painting

Of the ENTIRE visible world

[Having] received its shape though wisdom, shows what its origin is.' (NGA, n.d. p.40)

This is exactly what Greenaway seems to have followed and links to what Kandinsky believed in; it is not just what you see from first glance but what can be read in between the lines. Peter Greenaway's use of imagery of the rotten meat, pigs head and bones left in the van represents the passing of life and death and is an omen to what will happen to Albert Spica. He ignores his wife, badly treats her, and when she has the courage and anger, Georgina takes his life. This clear link between Dutch paintings of the 17th century is carried throughout the whole film and is explicitly linked with colour symbology. With both of these two elements unified together helps carry the metaphors and symbols, creating rhythm and movement in the film.

In the beginning scene of the film the spectator is confronted with the interesting use of colour and tones; the dark night lit up by the luminous green and blue of the lights of the restaurant and combined with the sickly yellow coming from inside the van full of raw meat and fish. The spectator instantly has a feeling of uncertainty due to his odd choice of colours. Although it is not immediately noticeable as the spectator is slowly introduced to the this strange world, we notice that Greenaway has chosen to use a particular colour for each room; blue for the parking lot outside the restaurant (always at night), green for the kitchen, red for the dining room and white for the bathroom. As the characters move from room to room their costume will change colour according to what colour room they are in apart from the lover and the cook whose clothing does not change colour. The figurative movement of these colours helps the spectator to separate the creation of the film from that of the ordinary, but also to allow the spectator to engage with the films content. We are able to see time pass through colour and it's orientation as it creates rhythm that moves us from one sequence to another. This surreal use of colour and the rhythm it imposes gives the spectator a sense of routine, only later to become disillusioned by the violence and agitated by the intense red colour filling the screen. This idea of rhythm, routine and repetition of colour ties in with what Absolute filmmakers produced, introducing only flashes of other colours. Music in Absolute film complimented what was being animated, and when we are introduced to the kitchen, we are usually greeted by the green germ look plaguing the kitchen and the song of the kitchen choir boy singing the same tune each time Albert Spica enters creating an eerie tension. The song of the choir boy, a sound familiar to dark gothic churches, compliments this surreal scene we are faced with and mirrors the strange odd feeling it gives out.

Fig. 3. Officers and Subalterns of the Saint George Civic Guard,

(1639), Frans Hals,

Fig 4. Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard Company, (1616), Frans Hals

If we look at Greenaway's use of the figurative use of the colour red, it's meaning changes as we progress into the film. At the beginning of the film, we see the colour red as this rich, grand ostentatious colour and everything and everyone belongs to that room. Every character in the room is wearing the colour red, and it feels as though they all belong or are associated with the main character Albert Spica in the restaurant. All apart from one man who is introduced a little later into the film as a quiet mysterious character who wears a brown suit who reads books and later becomes Georgina's (Albert Spica's wife) lover. All the women wear red dresses or black with hints of red, whilst the men wear black suits with a red tie or bow tie, apart from the members of Spica's gang who all wear red sashes. This links back to Dutch Paintings of a typical Schutterijen group, who wear their company's colour sashes, portraying to the public powerful, rich, self-possessed men (see fig 3). An extremely large Dutch 17th Century painting called the 'Banquet of the officers of the St Geroge Civic Guard Company (1616), hangs in the restaurant (fig 4). It is a group painting of men sitting down all wearing the same outfit, which Albert Spica has fashioned himself and his gang to dress accordingly, looking over and watching everyone who sits at the restaurant (See fig 5). Many of the Dutch paintings of a company of men wore red sashes as it represents richness and power which Greenaway has adopted in order to portray and give the sense of power and control Spica and his group have. By making the gang dress in a similar way it signifies unity and strength. Furthermore this unifying of colour between the painting and Spica's gang, strengthens the idea that everything in the room is associated with him, giving colour a much more authoritative roll creating impact and a sense of control. However although Greenaway has referenced this to 17th century Dutch painting, and has imitated this look with Albert, he has exaggerated the look making Spica's clothes more flamboyant when in contrast to the period in which the film is set in, 1980s. Douglas Keesey states 'the merry makers in the Hals painting seem to look down in ironic disdain at Spica's gang gorging themselves below.'(Keesey, 2006 p.89) Nevertheless, this all adds to the rich overpowering feeling of the restaurant, and like the Dutch men in the group painting who would often display the painting in a public place, it can be seen as a metaphor for Albert's gang, displaying their power.

Fig 5. Still from the Film 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover' (1989) Directed by Petergreenaway. Albert Spica and his gang in the restaurant dining room.

Van Manders, a Flemish born Dutch painter in the 17th Century, wrote a biography of artists from the Netherlands called the 'Schilder- Boeck' (1604). Over ten years of research, Van manders had written the 'first fully argued theory of Netherlandish painting, drawing and printmaking.' (Melion, 1992 p. xvii) In this book he discussed colour and its symbolism for understanding objects when artists have used them. He wrote that red 'equates to highness, courageous and boldness.' (Wheelock, 2005 p. 101) This link that Spica's gang and the men in the Dutch 17th century portrait and the fact that they both wear the same red sash, makes this the even more rich because the symbolism of what was meant in the 17th century of highness, courageousness and bold relates to the characters in the film in particular Georgina, who like what Douglas Keesey said about Hals men looking down on Spica and his gang, she also seems to do the same, and in the end has the courage to stand up to her husband. The colour red in western culture associate the meaning of red as love and passion, but can also mean danger and violence, which the spectator can connect to this film as the film unravels.

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When Georgina's clothes change colour it is a another display of Spica's power and success a 'trophy wife displayed as a sign of his [Albert Spica] wealth and stylishness' (Keesey, 2006 p.87). Throughout the film, Albert Spica wears a black tail-coat suit with only the sash changing colour according to the room, the rest of his suit remaining black like his character. The rotten meat being served in the restaurant, coated in a brown gloss to make it look delectable, portrays an elaborate symbol of Albert Spica's flamboyant clothing hiding a rotten old man, who is trying to cover up the violence and sense of despair in him, as Spica starts to lose control. This link that can be made between colour and costume and the relationship with character, illustrates the importance of colour and how it can create a strong film filled with intriguing characters which mirrors and elaborates on different personalities.

In addition to this point, Michael's costume, Georgina's lover, remains the same colour through out the whole film. His costume, a brown suit and white shirt which symbolises that he is different to the others in the restaurant, he is the neutral party. He is singled out because he has been noticed by both Georgina and Albert. For Georgina she has found a person that loves her and treats her well, and Albert notices him because of his knowledge of books, which Albert bluntly ignores the idea of learned book reading by throwing the books across the floor, Michael dresses to "the colour of the books that ground him in the knowledge ignored by the insubstantial thief." (Keesey, 2006 p.87) When Georgina notices the mysterious man in the brown suit and heads towards the bathroom where he then follows her, the spectator is given some relief from the overpowering red room to a bright white bathroom (fig. 6). As the spectator watches Georgina walk in to the bathroom her costume rather than red is now white. This white room and the colour white have a great significance to the film; everything in white is seen as good, innocent or pure. For Georgina, when she walks into the room it shows her vulnerability towards her evil husband and the man in which she falls in love with. The room has a divine heavenly feel and as Greenaway explains this is because it's "the place where the lovers fuck for the first time." (Greenaway, cited in Keesey 2006 p.86) When her lover Michael walks into the bathroom his costume however does not change.

Fig 6 and 7. Stills from 'The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover' ( 1989)Directed by Peter Greenaway, Fig 6 Bathroom scene. Fig 7 The corridor in the restaurant.

Furthermore the theme of the colour white; virtue, kindness, the opposite of the red room, is carried through to the character of the cook who helps Georgina and her lover, Michael, to escape and at the end of the film helps Georgina to revenge her husband Albert Spica. The cook's costume doesn't change colour throughout the whole film, he is always seen wearing the white uniform of a cook symbolising the cooks good character and faithfulness to Georgina. When Georgina and Michael walk out of the bright white bathroom, they enter into the all consuming red corridor. The sexual charge that can be felt now changes the motif of the colour red, a now overpowering all consuming love affair, and even her cigarette is the fiery red (fig. 7).

The repetition of the two main rooms, the kitchen and dining room, and the routine that appears through the week of horror in the film intensifies the anger and irritation we feel for the character Georgina. It is heighten when we see the lover and Georgina together in the bookshop, knowing that Albert Spica is ready to take his revenge and take back Georgina to his evil controlling world. As the film progresses the intense blood red colours begin to irritate and aggravate emotions that you eventually feel relief when the monstrous vision ends.

Towards the end of the film the colour red in the dining room becomes a deeper carnivorous red, as we see Albert Spica's controlling cruelty becoming more savage and evil. Greenaways use of colour tones becomes more and more like a Dutch painting, something out from Rembrandts art work who used deep colours and strong contrasts of light and dark, portraying the dark character of Albert and the kindness of those helping Georgina. By the end of the film, the red in the dining room is now almost black; it's a very dark deep red, the colour of blood. Yet now rather than it portraying Albert's anger, it is now a figurative metaphor for Georgina's anger at her husband for killing her lover. Georgina finally has the courage and passion to stand up to her husband by serving Albert Michael's body for his dinner (fig 8). Even now that Michael has been cooked, his body a brown colour, demonstrates that he is still the neutral, innocent party that has been trodden on by Albert and Georgina and creates the metaphorical barrier between good and evil. Finally as the room has now turned almost black, Georgina kills her husband. I can be argued however, that the figurative change of the colour is a metaphor of Georgina's anger and taking control. Georgina's red passion of love is now turning into a dangerous act of violence creating a dark and sinister tone. That in fact this act of revenge makes Georgina's actions just as bad as the thief. Although she has achieved to set out revenge and kill her husband, there is a cruel twist; she has used the same violence that Albert Spica used and turned it on him. His dark black character as infiltrated her sense of humanity and like Raphael Bassan and Douglas Keesey stated 'in the end, the "barbarity of the lady" surpasses that of the thief.' (Keesey 2006. P. 89)

Fig 8. Final scene. 'The Cook, the thief his Wife and her Lover' (1989) Directed by Greenaway. Michael is served to Albert for dinner.

Greenaway's composition of much of the restaurant scenes as mentioned before uses Dutch 17th century paintings to show mainly Albert Spica's greed. Greenaway follows the tradition of still life's portraying the hollowness and gluttony of the material man by creating a flamboyant banquet of food laid out before Spica. The food and the way in which it is laid out are noticeable to be styled like that of Dutch banquets but are exaggerated to make the spectator feel uncomfortable at this over indulgence. The food displayed in Dutch paintings are meant to be mouth watering but gives us caution to such greed by usually revealing a fly next to the food, or the food looking over ripe or over decorated to remind our greater moral considerations (NGA, nb p. 90). The food displayed in the film, looks over garnished, the meat coated in a thick brown glaze giving it a shiny sickly look to it, covering the rotting meat seen in the van being served at the table. This clearly shows Greenaway's idea portraying what will happen to the material man, an omen to Spica. The glazing of the meat is hiding the implications of what's underneath; the van full of meat and fish literally rots before our eyes, a metaphor for Albert losing control and his devilish black acts are rotting his insides.

Many of the 17th Century Dutch paintings had the vanitas theme of Decay, which Greenaway has depicted with the rotting meat and fish in the van, is then literally juxtaposed with the Georgina and Michaels naked bodies when fleeing from Albert Spice. This literal juxtaposition between decay and human morality as their naked bodies are surrounded by rotting carcasses is horrifyingly striking, and it can be linked to the banishment of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and are suddenly subjected to the corruption of flesh. While such cautionary hints maybe missed by a greedy man such as Albert Spica, Greenaway present the spectator with the last and final metaphor, 'we and Spica are confronted with a food tableau that is most literally a memento mroi (remind of morality): the cooked, glazed and garnished body of Michael.' (Keesey 2006, p. 89) His destruction and obsession of the material things has led to Spica ultimately eating death. The beautiful art works offered to us by Greenaway is only obstructed to find that 'the rules of consumption still reign.' (Lawrence, 1997 p. 18) For the Spectator this world of extravagant beauty and material pleasure seems to intensify when compared to the terrifying cruelty and sorrowful desperation of Georgina, which inhabits the film throughout. Consequently the by the end of the film the cruelty and passion that runs through this film becomes overwhelming.

From this film, Greenaway has shown that it is not simply a matter of finding a colour and matching it to a particular figurative meaning, the most interesting uses of figurative colour are layering symbolic meaning and cross referencing symbolic significance to enrich the film. Looking back to what Kandinsky stated on how an artist/filmmaker should create a film that is able to unify two elements together:

'The final goal (knowledgeis attained by the human soul through finer vibr-

ations of the same. These finer vibrations, however, which are identical in their

final goal, have in themselves different inner motions and are hereby distin-

guished from one another.' [Kandinsky, cited in Elder 2008 p.83]

Meaning the artist should understand the two elements in order to unify them successfully to create an underlying meaning but are in themselves still able to be identified. Greenaway has successfully united colour and 17th century Dutch still life paintings to create a wealth of imagery and symbolic connotations, but is also able to be seen as separate elements that on their own bring something to the film. It is clear that Greenaway clearly thought through what he wanted to portray in this film and consequently took control of the feelings and emotions he wanted us to feel in both the characters and our response to the setting. The abstract use of colour and the repetition of colour creates rhythm which builds up the tension and anger felt towards Albert Spica. In 'The cook,the Thief his Wife and her Lover' Colour does take the role of another character adding to the narrative, enriching the spectators viewing, giving it a more dynamic and provocative approach.


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