Rose’s Identity Through Feasting in Titanic
by Kenan Bateman
In James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), a newfound romance emerges between Rose Dewitt Bukater and Jack Dawson on the RMS Titanic before disaster strikes. Rose is an upper class woman unhappy with her current life. Engaged to an overbearing man named Cal, Rose’s depression in that lifestyle leads her to attempt suicide by jumping off the back of the boat into frigid waters. As this is happening, Jack happens to notice her and stops her from jumping. A romance ensues, and the two of them start spending more time together on the ship. Noticing this, Rose’s mother immediately bans her from seeing Jack. She wants Rose to marry in her own class and follow through with her engagement to Cal. However, Rose wants Jack regardless of his class difference. Their romance blossoms, but disaster cuts it short. The RMS Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks. While sinking, the first class passengers are the first to leave the ships, yet Rose opts to abandon her family in favor of staying with Jack and the third class. Going down with the ship, the two lovers find themselves in the frigid water, which eventually takes Jack’s life. A lifeboat finds Rose, and she changes her last name to Dawson, immortalizing her love with Jack. It is very apparent throughout the film that Rose is struggling with an identity crisis. As an upper class passenger, she feels more at home in the third class area with Jack. This identity crisis is a central role of the film, and its setting on the doomed Titanic makes it even more poignant as it literally turns into a life or death decision. And although we see her struggle with this decision in many different settings on the ship, they reach a climax whenever food or drink is around. Rose’s changing tastes become the most apparent at dinner and party scenes throughout the film. This is best illustrated through back-to-back scenes of a high-class meal followed by a steerage class pub party directly after.
Whenever Rose is eating or socializing with the upper class, she always appears to be disinterested, uncomfortable or unhappy. The scene where Jack first accompanies Rose to a first class dinner perfectly illustrates her lack of fulfillment amongst the rich. There is fakeness about her throughout the scene. Everything she does seems very well rehearsed, bordering on uncomfortable at times. She is the only one that doesn’t laugh at the jokes others make at dinner, and she frequently flashes Jack uncomfortable looks. Rose even goes as far as to mock the upper class under her breath to Jack – “Next it’ll be brandies in the smoking room. Now they’re treated to a cloud of smoke as they congratulate each other on being masters of the universe.” She obviously isn’t comfortable in this lifestyle, and it is no coincidence that she is only shown taking one brief sip of champagne throughout the meal, not consuming this lifestyle. It is also worth noting that when she takes this sip, she is out of focus, showing that it isn’t even the most important aspect of the shot. The scene is also shown entirely in high-key light. In video, this often implies that a scene is very planned and scripted. Granted this is a generalization, but most high-key lighted scenes will not have very strong emotions present, which is true in this scene and supports Rose’s lack of enthusiasm. The last aesthetic choice worth noting is the composition of each shot and depth of field choices. A small aperture is used for the entire scene creating an incredibly shallow depth of field. This narrowly focuses each shot. Due to this, no other tables in the dining area are ever clear in the scene. In the same light, most of the shots are tightly framed with one person’s head and an assumed eyeline. Both of these aspects working together makes all the characters feel very distant from one another and isolated. This is true of the first class, and it undoubtedly mirrors Rose’s identity crisis and her apparent fakeness in upper class. It is also worth noting that many of the characters at the dinner have at least one shot of only their face while they are talking, yet Rose is never shown by herself, often framed with at least one other character in her close-ups. It shows how her identity in the first class is very much tied to those around her and how she isn’t truly an individual in this setting.
In contrast, Rose doesn’t resist the third class lifestyle at all. All Jack has to say is, “So you want to go to a real party?” and she immediately follows him. At this Irish dance party, Rose shows a completely different side of herself. We see her clapping along to music, smiling, and even laughing when a drunken man falls and breaks a table. Rose chugs a glass of dark beer and smirks, “What? You think a first class girl can’t drink?” The lower class lifestyle surrounds her, and she consumes it wholeheartedly. She even cockily pulls a cigarette out of a man’s mouth, takes a drag, and then stands on just her toes to show everyone her toughness. Rose shows no resistance to their way of life and quickly jumps on stage with Jack to improvise a dance while laughing and shrieking in happiness. The aesthetic choices of this scene are also drastically different than those in first class. The entire scene is white balanced to give a much more red, warmer feel – mirroring the third class’s warm, accepting nature. James Cameron also chose to use mixed lighting in this scene, which creates more love-like emotions, and he uses that to illuminate Rose’s happy faces. Cameron’s cinematographer also chose to use a higher aperture in this scene to leave much of the party in focus in each shot. This gave a community feel to the pub and helped illustrate how Rose blended in more as she was not the only thing in focus in her shots. And unlike her shots in the first class, Rose has shots in this scene that show only her, reinforcing her individuality in third class. This form of feasting, a polar opposite from her fine-dining passengers, seems to appeal to her much more. A feast with less food, more alcohol and more carefree interactions brings out an entirely different side of Rose.
In the film, it is the presence of food that often accents Rose’s struggles with her identity, not necessarily the actual act of eating it or specific food eaten. It is not merely convenient that the emotional turning points in the film often involve food – Jack and Rose’s chase scene that takes them through a kitchen, Cal flipping a table of food while angry at Rose, or the plates shattering on board as the ship sinks and Rose’s love goes down with it. The film is about a romance and a disaster, yet food plays a central role to mirror Rose’s struggles that is often overlooked. She wants to escape her scripted, fake lifestyle in first class to become more of an individual in the authentic, accepting third class.