The DVD of The International is now out (my review coming soon), which leads me to think of its director, Tom Tykwer, which makes me thing of his earlier film, Run Lola Run, which makes me think of its redhaired star, Franka Potente, which makes me think of another film she appears in in which red again plays a prominent role: The Bourne Identity.
Doug Limon’s taut version of the Robert Ludlum thriller does numerous things just right: the casting of Matt Damon for the combined innocence and cruelty of his face; the editing (which went to pot in the second Bourne film when excessive quick cuts confused the action); the setting in a drab European winter; the music, from Moby’s closing theme to the relentless push of Oakenfold’s "Ready, Steady, Go" for the car chase; and actors like Chris Cooper and Brian Cox and Potente to round out the strong cast. With all this cinematic excitement telling the story of a man who does not know who he is, we might overlook a small detail that, in my mind, elevates The Bourne Identity to the level of an art film: Limon’s use of the color red, which appears in some object in nearly every single scene.
We notice the red in the film’s very first shot. A body is floating in the open sea at night. The image is a range of grays and blacks, except for one dot of red from a beacon on the man’s clothing. The color is more than incidental to the shot, and more than just a plot point telling us Bourne’s body will be found. It signals the kind of world we—and Bourne—have been immersed in: a world in which the essential elements exist in relation to technology, in which Bourne’s search for his identity will be compromised and defined by the gadgetry of espionage.
From there, the red goes on: Bourne’s sweater, his puffy jacket, the bag in which he dumps the contents of the safe-deposit box, the flowers in the otherwise gray CIA lunch room, Marie’s Mini, and of course, the red streak in her hair. This is only a partial list. I guarantee you that nearly every shot of the film contains something that doesn’t have to be red but is.
The question is why? Did Limon begin with the beacon or red bag and then build in the rest of the objects because he thought the red looked cool? Is the use of red nothing more than a visual motif, just because? It’s tempting to think that, after casting Potente as Marie, Limon decided to make a film-length in-joke about her previous film and Lola’s famous blaze of bright red hair. But there has to be another reason. Otherwise, we would either have to believe that Limon is the only filmmaker to adopt a quirk like this or that this kind of superficial Motif With No Meaning is going on in countless other movies and we simply haven’t noticed.
I’ll admit that for me, watching The Bourne Identity, which I seem to do with some frequency, does turn into a game of Where’s Waldo as I note with pleasure each instance of something red in the grays and browns of Limon’s wintry Europe. Other viewers are probably happy to watch Matt Damon search for his identity without noticing the color of his bag, his jacket, or his borrowed car. And failing to notice the red does nothing to diminish their appreciation of the film.
But after watching the film on a plane recently, when my attention was less than complete, I was struck with what I think explains Limon’s use of the color. The red is there, all the time, whether we notice it or not. We are likely vaguely aware of it on some subliminal level. It is a detail that doesn’t generally alter the course of events or shape people’s reactions. It becomes a constant in the film nonetheless.
The red objects that punctuate the film give us a sense of what Bourne himself is experiencing. Like Bourne, we go from the open ocean, to Marseille, to Paris knowing there is meaning out there, often close at hand, but never close enough for us to pin it down. It’s the notion of identity itself as the amnesiac Bourne experiences it. If Limon has done this on purpose, it’s a stroke of genius, and it explains why The Bourne Identity is so much more resonant than the clunky novel it is based on, and so much more powerful than just another fast-paced action film.