I’ve always been magnetized by the symbolism in films. Nothing in film crafting is accidental, and it goes without saying, although I’m still going to say it, color is no different. Long before filmmaking, with literature and poetry, color theory existed. The idea of using color to convey to readers, or audiences, about the internal state or conflict of a character. Whether that be where they’ve been, where they’re going, what they want/need, or their overall current emotional state of being. The symbolic meaning of color can be represented through a variety of faucets in a film — the set design, the costumes, or even the lighting of a scene itself. Sometimes these symbols are so subtle, particularly with films that captivate your emotions from the very beginning, it goes unnoticed. Having said that, I’d like to analyze Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, and the potential color theories that lie within it — specifically dealing with the colors red and cyan.
The color cyan, substituted in the film for the primary color blue, and red are utilized in a variety of ways throughout the film. The films cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, states this best in an interview with Indiewire. “The color and modulation of the light represented Jack Maine’s world, his space, his universe. His palette was specific to him represented in cyan and red.”
Although colors can have vastly different meanings depending on certain situation, generally, red represents compassion, love, anger, excitement, power, vengeance, violence or the element of fire while blue represents the opposite; tranquility, truth, trust, comfort, commitment, stability, calmness or the element water. On the color spectrum, these colors are opposites. This perfectly represents the internal conflict that resides within Bradley Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine. He lives in this state of purgatory between extreme highs and extreme lows. It is one of the main driving forces of his substance abuse and why, throughout the film, we see him in a state of complete sobriety and clarity, and then in states of complete torment and somberness. The fire and the water.
Color in films can be analyzed further than simply their hues. Another way these colors can be symbolic is how and when they are shown with characters and the actions these characters take, or the impact other actions have on them. That is, when the light is modulated in certain ways during certain sequences, it could have different meanings. There are many examples of this with the aforementioned red and cyan. In the scene where Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, performs La Vie En Rose in the drag queen bar, Jack sits at the bar, lit with only red. Ally starts on the stage lit in a single cyan light source. With the information provided by the cinematographer, cyan and red represent both sides of Jack. However, in this scene, the red that lights Jack represents one side: the love, the fire, the darkness within. The cyan light on Ally represents another side: stability, water, the light. Symbolically, this could represent the internal struggle within Jack and that Ally is the personification of the light side. It could also potentially symbolize Jack’s love for Ally in that moment, the love for her music and what she has to say with “the twelve notes between any octave.” When we see Ally from Jack’s perspective, the light is a majority red with blueish accents. Another way to look at this is Ally is figuratively stepping into Jack’s world, into the red from the blue.
Another interesting note to make in this scene is how and when the lighting shifts between red and cyan. Ally starts in the cyan light and moves toward Jack in the red light as she performs. When she sings in front of him, they both meet in the red light. But she eventually moves back to the cyan light on the stage as she closes the song, seducing Jack to the light side, to the best side of himself. This is also the first time that we see both colors follow both characters which could further signify how although each person leans a little more one way, they both are enveloped by both colors. Another example of this type of lighting change with the characters can be seen when they perform their first song together, Shallow. While Jack is on stage, he is draped in the blue concert lighting with subtle nodes of red — opposite of what he normally is associated with. This speaks volumes about his character being in the light and the best side of himself while playing music. When he leaves the stage to get Ally, we find her in red lighting. This represents her own dark side – her insecurities about performing an original song. She is terrified of people hearing her music. But after Jack tells her to trust him, the concert stage lighting that was on her switches back and forth between red and cyan. Jack goes out on stage and shortly after followed by Ally where they perform one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen/felt. Both colors are still present in the scene, but you will notice that it is a majority of bright cyan light that even at times becomes all white – true tranquility.
Although the cyan and red symbolize both sides of Jack’s world, there are several instances where the specific color, red, follows only Jack and cyan follows only Ally. This could potentially mean that Ally, naturally, is a part of this cyan and red world that encapsulates Jack. An example of this is in the Grammy scene. When we first see Jack at the Grammy’s, he is loaded on pills and alcohol, about to perform on a stage that is completely red. Another prime example of red representing his downward spiral and the darker sides of Jack. Later in that scene, when Ally eventually wins the Grammy for best new artist, she goes to accept her award, and the stage is entirely cyan. To me, this says that not only are the characters represented by each color, but that their lives and stories are intertwined and are meant to be intertwined. It also shows that Jack has the option to choose to follow whatever path he wants.
One of the most impactful moments of the film with color was when Jack was in rehab following the Grammy’s. The entire time, for the first time, his character was surrounded by only blue. In all the scenes we see him in, he is wearing light blue denim and a navy t-shirt. He continues wearing this all the way until he’s back home with Ally and playing with Charlie in the backyard – in his true happiness. He even swims in rehab. This is a big one because not only is the pool water extremely cyan colored, but the water itself represents rebirth. It’s truly a new beginning for Jack. To me, this makes the ending that much sadder. Despite all his mistakes and downfalls throughout the film, this was the first time that it looked like he was actually going to be redeemed. This redemption is seen even more so when we see him dressed in white — right before the manager gives him the last figurative push.
Aside from the examples I have already stated, there was one specific scene where the use of color really stuck out to me. This shot made me reflect back on moments in the film where there were similar aspects that I had noticed but not put into context. It takes place following the shot where they show Jack’s fate and Charlie rests outside the garage (a truly heart-wrenching frame). It’s a wide shot of Jack and Ally’s home, at night, an entire room is lit red within the house, and the blue of the night surrounds it. The shot is a slow push-in to this “red-room” and eventually siren lights illuminate the woods surrounding the house — red and blue. It’s a subtle shot but for some reason, it really got me thinking. Specifically, about the theory of the red-room. It was a theme that I had heard or read about some time ago and I still don’t know where. But I had noticed it in several other situations in the film. Not just the color red, but when red completely envelops a room.
I looked up the symbolism of the red-room and came across a novel titled Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (which coincidentally was adapted to a film in 2011 directed by Cary Fukunaga). In the novel, the red-room is a place the main character, Jane, is placed into as punishment from her hellish Aunt. It symbolizes the feelings of fright and insecurities in the heroine, not merely within the chapter but also through ulterior events in the narrative. It is a prison of her independency and individuality formed by both the external hardships the society around her puts upon her and her negative feelings as reactions to those adversities. This is an eerily similar description on how one could summarize Jack and how his character feels. Jack’s frights and insecurities are that he will no longer become relative or people will no longer care what he has to say and that his career is being eclipsed by his wife, or that he believes his wife is selling out to the music industry. As for his prison of independency and individuality formed by external hardships, this one is fairly straight forward based on exposition in the film. His mother died in child birth, and his father was a drunk and died when he was 13. He was raised independently and his individuality came from his external hardships with the loss of family, his abandonment from his brother, and the fame that came with being a such a huge public figure and celebrity. And the negative feelings as reactions to those adversities would be his substance abuse.
In the film, the slow push-in shot of the red-room of their house could potentially be a reference to what the red-room symbolizes in Jane Eyre. It was his prison. He previously mentioned how when he was young, being at home was like a prison and he felt stuck. He also mentions it again when him and Ally sit on their couch and he tells her thank you to which she replies, “for what?” He tells her, “for making this place a home. It never felt like a home before.” This theme of the home being a prison can be seen again when he comes home from rehab following his brother dropping him off. He goes into the house and it’s dead silent and dark. He turns on a neon light that reads La Vie En Rose and makes the entire left side of the screen a red-room. It even makes the use of the shot in general make sense. This shot is eventually followed up by the shot mentioned above of the same red-room but from outside, surrounded by the natural blue evening light. The composition of that shot and color could potentially symbolize the inevitable fate of Jack whether Ally came into his life or not. No matter how much he was surrounded by the good — the natural blue in the shot that surrounds the red-room — he always will have that little piece of the red within himself — the red room in the shot, dead center of frame.
Whatever the truth may be or even if this shot was just a throw away, there is no way to definitively know if all of these examples outlined in this essay were Bradley Cooper’s intentions for the film. Personally, I believe that it was purposefully done given the evidence I have laid out and supported. Also, given the fact that Cooper graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in English, one could surmise that he might have stumbled across or studied this piece of literature and its symbolic significance and thought it perfectly represented his character. Even if he did not, there is no way he was not aware of color theory given that it is a huge literary element. No matter what, it is exciting to see the Oscar race kick off with a film that had the raw, gritty look of a music documentary while navigating such a deeply, visceral story that had me emotionally invested from the very beginning, all while on very modest budget for a film of this scope. I definitely think Bradley Cooper stands as the front runner for best director and best actor.