The Color of Melodrama: In The Mood For Love and Julieta

Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung in ‘In The Mood for Love’ (Source: Indiana University)
“Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.” -Pablo Picasso

Bathed in deep reds and oranges, movies like In The Mood for Love and Julieta strut onto the screen, looking fabulous, and then proceed to cry, feel and love for two hours. The melodrama that takes place onscreen is mirrored in the heightened, romantic colors of the costumes and sets. Why is that we associate tales of such intense emotions with these highly saturated jewel tones?

While it may not seem like it, the relationship between color and emotion in film began before color film was even a dream. In the early silent era, film tinting was a regular practice, with pioneers such as Georges Méliès hand coloring each individual frame of their movies so that they burst with life.

Source: SilentFilms.com

But this process was time consuming and tedious, and few directors bothered with it. Many did, however, tint entire frames of films. Movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari show off deliberate and beautifully colored frames, with each shade adding to the mood of the film. Each color had a different meaning, and was utilized to give black and white silent films a new texture. Amber was daylight, blue was nighttime; green was mysterious, and finally red was anger, fury or passion.

‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (Source: Criterion Cast)

These were the first examples of color in film, and they’re effective. Horror movies feel creepier and romantic scenes feel more passionate. It’s all color psychology, in which certain shades will elicit a feeling in your brain without you consciously realizing it. These emotions are most present with red, perhaps our most emotive color. It represents passion, love, energy, excitement, anger, aggression, and danger. The physical effects are as extreme. Increased respiration, blood pressure and metabolism all make red an energizing color, and one that can be utilized to help the right moment feel a little more intense.

‘Häxan’ (Source: Goregirl,com)

Even this simpler kind of film tinting fell out of fashion by the late 1920s, and movies went back to being black and white, but not for too long. In 1932, three strip Technicolor had been introduced, and by the late 1940s, it had begun to enter mainstream cinema. The most memorable use of color from this era is undoubtedly The Wizard of Oz which symbolizes one of the first journeys into metaphorical color storytelling in the history of film.

in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (Source: TasteofCinema.com)

Now the rest of the history of color cinema could be viewed simply through photos, so let’s jump to 1988.

By this time, Pedro Almodóvar had already made 5 movies, and many shorts. But with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he burst onto the film scene with both a critical and commerical success.

The film mixed melodrama and farcical comedy in a way that had rarely been done before. It focused almost entirely on women, even more subversive then than it is now. And it had a spectacularly designed color palette, made up of rich reds, stark whites, and deep blacks.

in ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (Source: Little White Lies)
in ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (Source: Listal.com)

As Almodóvar’s career progressed, he moved from these melodramatic farces to full on melodramas and thrillers, movies like Volver and All About My Mother. These movies had the rich primary colors that Almodóvar became known for, signifying a shift in his career to more deeply felt films.

in ‘All About My Mother’ (Source: Barcelona City Travel.com)
Penelope Cruz in ‘Volver’ (Source: Film and Furniture)

These films signifying their heightened emotions with their color palette, which is simple in its primaries, and rich in its tones. That brings us to Julieta, Almodóvar’s 20th and most recent feature. Almodóvar said himself that he wanted to make a movie that was “pure drama”, not a mix of genres like Women on The Verge. Julieta is more serious than most, if not all, Almodóvar films, and yet it’s colors are the most over the top.

Adriana Ugarte in ‘Julieta’ (Source: The AV Club)
in ‘Julieta’ (Source: ForestrowFilmSociety.com)

For a movie that is about incredible sadness, and the restraint of such emotions, the colors reflect back the pain the characters face. When all emotions are heightened, the palette helps create a world that is still realistic, but more fitting to a melodrama in all its over the top glory.

Daniel Grao and Adriana Ugarte in ‘Julieta’ (Source: Sony Classics)

During the 90s, Director Wong Kar-Wai rose to the top of the international cinema stage. Films like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels drew him a lot of attention, and by 1998, it was time to work on a new movie. Without a script, and only an idea and his longtime cameraman Christopher Doyle, Wong begun work on what would end up being In The Mood for Love. By 1999, the film had come to fruition, and it was a hit. Both audiences and critics loved it, and it won awards at Cannes, from The National Film Society, and the BAFTAs.

In The Mood for Love is a romantic melodrama, and along with it’s painful restraint and emotions the characters refuse to act on, is a color palette of deep reds and blacks.

‘In The Mood For Love’ (Source: Coconuts.co)
‘In The Mood For Love’ (Source: The Red List)

Often times Wong simply holds on billowing red curtains, on a trail of smoke, and the audience doesn’t need to be told what these long moments signify, the emotions that Wong seems to magically draw out of them.

‘In The Mood For Love’ (Source: The Red List)
‘In The Mood For Love’ (Source: IMDb)

And finally, when the characters leave each other, Wong breaks his color palette, leaving a bright spot of green in one of many gorgeous sarongs Mrs. Chan wears.

‘In The Mood For Love’ (Source: Media Life Crisis)

It’s not hard to guess why two film makers, one from Spain and the other from Hong Kong, both gravitated towards the same color palette for the romantic melodramas they made. The primary colors signify the strong, singular emotions the characters have, whether it’s passion, yearning, or sadness. And the richness of these colors show just how incredible their emotions are.

When creating a world, a film maker must think about everything. And that includes color. Clearly, the world of these romantic melodramas, the world of heightened emotions, has colors that rich and deep and beautiful, ones to go along with the action and feelings on screen.

Author’s Note: I do not use the word melodrama here as an insult, rather a description. These are both movies with deeply felt emotions, and thus, melodrama seems an appropriate descriptor.