THE COLOUR OF JAM | We Need to Talk About Kevin

Red is an omen and a through-route, visually connecting the film’s fragmented, non-linear scenes with terrible portentousness. By Louis Rogers

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin begins with a startling image: an aerial shot of a seething mass of bodies in a sea of pulpy red. It’s a disorienting, apparently violent sight, Dante-esque, before it gradually resolves into something more recognisable: crowds at La Tomatina, Valencia’s annual tomato-throwing festival. But that first impression of red lingers. It reappears in the red paint flung across Eva’s car and front door; in the strawberry jam oozing from two slices of white bread; in the blinding lights of a police car; and – off-screen, but unavoidably implied – the blood of Kevin’s victims.

The colour is an omen and a through-route, visually connecting the film’s fragmented, non-linear scenes with terrible portentousness. It appears, sharply accentuated, in the backgrounds and details of countless scenes: in the plastic chairs of a waiting room; in a half-eaten apple; in the leaves of maple tree; in a wall of soup tins. These recursive visual details unsettle us, consciously or subconsciously, with their prominence. It’s as if the mess that pervades the film – the unpleasantly sanguine spillages of jam and paint and ketchup – has seeped into its fabric, making its red-stippled scenes unsettled and unsettling.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas proposed, in Purity and Danger, that dirt is matter out of place. This is how the jam spilling out of a sandwich is distinguished from the jam inside it; how the paint sprayed up walls with a water pistol is distinguished from that on a brush or a piece of paper. This distinction is also a likely cause behind queasiness around blood: our very essence seen out of place. Through its persistent reds and beyond, Lynne Ramsay charges her film with this kind of displacement. The mess Kevin constantly produces – including in bodily forms – is not just a headache for Eva to clean up, but a kind of deliberate and malignant communication. (In one chilling scene, Kevin silently extracts fingernails from his mouth which he has chewed off and retained, setting them out on the table before Eva.) The conspicuous, off-kilter reds similarly strike us with their out-of-placeness, contributing to a distinctive, inescapable sense of dread.

Kevin doesn’t just make a mess, but displaces and unsettles with intent calculation, right up to his last, terrible acts. He leaves Eva – and by extension, us – with the ill-fated task of attempting to put the irrevocably disturbed back into place. 

 

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