Composition of Image in Punch-Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson’s offbeat romance Punch-Drunk Love was recently placed among the honorable mentions for WatchMojo’s list of weirdest movies. It is clearly a bizarre film due to its plot and its recurring images of harmoniums and pudding cups. But, what really sets Punch-Drunk Love apart from other romantic comedies is its unusual shots and its use of light and shadow. Anderson creates dark and uncomfortable settings to provide insight into Barry’s character.

Barry lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he cannot get any support or friendly companionship from his manipulative, bullying sisters. Throughout the entire film, Barry wears a bright blue suit, making him a target of abuse from everybody else. The fact that he never wears anything different throughout the action of the film shows how he is constantly visible as a target.

Lighting plays an important part in understanding Barry’s difficult life. There are many scenes in Punch-Drunk Love that are full of dark shadows. This darkness obscures Barry, making him merely a shadow of himself. We get the sense that the constant marginalization has led to low self-esteem and a poor self-perception because Barry is reduced to a silhouette. These shadow scenes frequently take place in areas where Barry feels vulnerable. For example, his place of business is stressful and puts him under a great deal of pressure, so Barry is darkened by shadows in that location. Conversely, the scenes where Barry is in the grocery store are well-lit. These grocery store scenes occur when Barry has discovered a loophole in the Healthy Choice sweepstakes, and it is one of the few periods in his life when he is in total control and is getting ahead. Consequently, we can see Barry clearly.

Punch-Drunk Love is also stylistically unique because of its untraditional camera angles. Frequently, the shots of Barry focus on the back of his head or his profile. Rarely do we ever see Barry head-on. As with the dark shots, these unflattering shots of Barry often occur in situations when he is being confronted or when he is in an uncomfortable situation. For example, when Barry attends his sister’s party, the sisters make snide remarks at Barry. We see the sisters head-on, but we only see the back of Barry’s head. This heightens the intimidation factor, making the audience feel like they themselves are being attacked along with Barry. In another shot that is somewhat darkened, we see Barry confiding in a party guest about his depression. He is slightly darkened by the shadows and we see him from an obscure profile view. This shows that, even when he is trying to get help, he cannot achieve relaxation and comfort, because he is worried that his sisters will overhear.

One of the most important scenes in Punch-Drunk Love is when Barry, exhibiting a great deal of change and personal growth, confronts Dean. Barry’s profile is still darkened by shadows, but it is important to notice that Dean’s profile is similarly obscured. This contrasts with Dean’s earlier, well-lit scenes, such as his famous “Shut up” dialogue in the mattress store. Previously, Dean had confidence and was in control, but now he is feeling just as vulnerable as Barry often does.

The final shot of Punch-Drunk Love shows Lena embracing Barry in the darkness of Barry’s workplace. One could read this as a pessimistic ending shot, because Barry is still shown in the shadows. But, Barry is close in proximity to Lena and the couple gives the impression of warmth and comfort. Barry has not made it out of the darkness of his life completely, but now he has a companion that will help him change his life for the better. In spite of the lighting, the ending to the film is very hopeful.

Anderson uses the unusual cinematography of Punch-Drunk Love to heighten our awareness of who Barry is as a character. We are more likely to sympathize with Barry and feel vulnerable along with him when we are watching these uncomfortable scenes. Furthermore, Anderson uses these scenes to mark transitions in Barry’s life. We are allowed greater understanding of how monumental Barry’s transformation is when we actually observe a symbolic representation of his feelings. These visuals make Punch-Drunk Love a distinctive and powerful character study.

Works Cited

Anderson, Paul Thomas. Punch-Drunk Love. New Line Cinema, 2002. Film.

WatchMojo. “Top 10 Weird Movies.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 April 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.

(Image courtesy of http://www.rogerebert.com/scanners/opening-shots-punch-drunk-love)

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