January 27, 2023

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Transgression in Film.


Taboo is a subject frequently returned to in the contemporary art world. To transgress is to provide an audience with a situation in which any sense of moral integrity within the masses is challenged, sometimes causing uproar but, mostly, as with any art form, with the intent of shedding a whole new light on a particular subject.

In 2006 I visited the Tate Liverpool to witness what was probably one of the most thought provoking and shocking exhibits I have ever been to: Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Bad art for Bad People’. The Young British Artist’s brought to the gallery an array of works that challenged the very nature of art, aesthetics, sex and sexuality. Parodying the likes of Goya’s ‘Disaster’s of War’ and using philosophy and popular culture as tools for and against the work, the pair graced the Tate with crude and unnerving sculpture, installation and drawing. Large, life-sized rings of conjoined children stood in identical pairs of the latest fashionable trainers, phallus’ protruding crudely and objectively from a number of their faces (Zygotic acceleration, Biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000). In another room a bronze cast of 2 blow-up dolls placed romantically in a ‘69er’ stood out like a perverted sore thumb (Death). This, it was clear, was not an exhibit for the easily offended. Or was it?

On leaving the exhibition I was drowned in thought, a noisy ordeal. It dawned on me at the time that having all norms challenged visually in such a way can have an incredible lasting poignancy on a person. When we are shocked by something or, perhaps more importantly, presented with something that challenges the norm we become vulnerable. This vulnerability is a very important factor within the visual creative arts as it forces us to dwell on (or inversely, open up ourselves to) sometimes quite uncomfortable themes and ideas which otherwise it would be more ‘appropriate’ (for want of a better word) for us to ignore.

This years BFI Film Festival’s ‘Best Film’ recipient explores a dark and peculiar territory. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin,’ is the story of a loveless relationship between a boy and his mother. An adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel,  the film documents the life of Kevin (Erza Miller), from his mother, Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) perspective, as she lives with the aftermath of the atrocious killing spree involving her first born. Rather than focus this article on all the common themes we would expect from a picture of such emotive intensity (resentment, mistrust, spite) or trundle on down the default Freudian path, let’s talk about the representation of colour. A photographer first, Lynne Ramsey brings to the moving image something that strikes a very pleasurable chord with me; the ability to see in one shot something which can be carried fluently throughout thousands. It isn’t easy for a director to find consistency in imagery alone and when coupled with an unnerving storyline the task can, naturally, become as easily ruined as it can triumphant. It’s this sentiment which had me clinging to colour throughout the picture.

Red is a passionate colour. A colour of intensity, rage and lustfulness. It’s a colour which carries with it a substantial weight, its mass and vibrancy concentrated and, to a very real extent, holding substantial anthropomorphic value with our idea of violence, pain (both physical and psychological), childbirth and death. It’s a colour that transcends many emotions but only to very profuse extents. From the offset we’re engrossed in it as Eva slips, slides and squelches her way, satisfyingly skin-to-skin with hundreds of others at ‘La Tomatina’ festival in the Valencian town of Bunyol. An event which encapsulates culture in all forms, people bare all and frolic in a sea of the blood red fruit. Even at this early point the colour is one which floods the entire screen, as the dimensions crush together cadmium bodies like contained animals.

Jolting from past to present throughout, the colour undertakes more sinister, obvious connotations as Eva scrubs, washes and scrapes dried paint from her car and house; an obvious attack on a now helpless, victimised mother. Exhales of satisfaction ring from my very lungs as foreboding, claustrophobic crimson light is washed away from the cinema hall, dousing the audience in the cool, none threatening blue radiating from Eva’s porch wood. The picture is one of photographic tension followed by photographic release. The constant bombardment of all things red sits a heavy blanket over us. Children’s toys, tomato ketchup, red wine and of course blood, make for an uncomfortable sitting as tenses mingle between the unsettled dark territory of family life, the freedom of single-hood and the crushing weight of aftermath . I was surprised to hear ripples of laughter reverberate across the hall at certain points, a fitting example of such release for people put under scrutiny.

This is not to say that colour takes anything from plot, or vice versa. Tilda Swinton’s performance is inspired. I found myself clenching muscles I didn’t know I had to try and spur on a tear from the character. The avid, healthy, happy traveller Eva was becomes so weighted down with misery (soulless) that she is baron, unable to shed even moisture.

The unity of colour and narrative sits rather harmoniously. And it’s with such an inventive and fluent relation to a specific colour that narrative can take a back seat. This means we have the opportunity to observe or maybe more importantly, feel (as we do by observing art, as I did; a victim to the visual confrontations of the Chapman Brothers) something that we, as independent critics, have every right to have our own opinion on. This is the beauty of cinema, of photography. I think many an aggressive opinion will have been shed on We Need to Talk About Kevin and these opinions will certainly lay claim to many an important theme or ideology.

But me?

I was immersed in colour, in the colour red. It bogged me down, weighted me to my seat and set me free when it saw fit. Off home and unto the shower I belonged! A victim myself of photographic tension and photographic release.

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