The use of colour in Pleasantville

“It’s not just a stylistic conceit, it’s part of the story. The first five times that it happens in the movie, people go, ‘Oh my God, look at that colour.’ A character stares at the rose, he’s blown away. There’s constant reaction to the bits of colour… It’s like a virus that spreads. It’s done in part to keep the viewers off guard and give them a sense of surprise and wonder, because this world of predictability is breaking down.”

(Director Gary Ross)

The film uses colour in a complex and symbolic way, mixing monochrome and colour objects in the same frame. The film contrasts the complex, colourful, contemporary world of the late 1990s with the simplified, black-and-white world of Pleasantville, a late 1950s TV sitcom. The introduction of the intruders David and Jennifer to Pleasantville gradually changes the sitcom world and these changes are reflected by the gradual introduction of colour.

Pleasantville’s world is simple. It is a closed universe, where the streets loop back on themselves. In Pleasantville it never rains. There are no fires, all the fireman do is to rescue cats from trees. Everything is perfect and simple. The basketball team has never lost, it even seems that is impossible to miss a shot. While there are books in the library, they are filled with blank pages. The simple clarity of black and white matches the idealised nature of the world.

When Jennifer (Mary -Sue) starts the process of sexual awakening in the town it spreads quickly through the town’s teenagers. The viewer sees car brake lights suddenly glow red. Later we see a pink tongue, then a green car. In the soda shop, Mary-Sue nibbles at the red cherry on her ice cream. The parking spot in Lover’s Lane becomes a riot of colour. It is interesting how other aspects are used to signal changes in a variety of ways and it is not just though the gradual appearance of colour. A tree busts into flame. Text and pictures start appearing in library books. The juke-box music in the Pleasantville soda shop moves from sugary middle of the road music to rock-and-roll and then to modern jazz. It also starts to rain.

In Pleasantville, colour is used to differentiate two universes. In the film Gary Ross uses colour as a metaphor for race. The people who have experienced epiphanies or strong emotion are represented in colour and referred to as “coloureds,” while the people who are still only black and white try to segregate and oppress them.

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