Essays (book reviews)
John Gibbs, Mise en scène: Film Style and Interpretation
Placing Mise en scène: An Argument
In 1967, André S. Labarthe wrote a one-page billet or opinion piece in Cahiers du cinéma titled “Mort d’un mot” (“Death of a Word”). (1) The word (or term) in question was mise en scène. In this short but dense piece of argumentation, Labarthe makes the following moves.
… explaining, for instance, that mise en scène is not only rendering, merde alors, but also ideas; not only premeditation and ruse, but also collage and chance; not only the staggering shot along the streets in Touch of Evil  but also those shots ‘chucked with a trowel’ that [Claude] Chabrol talks about in relation to some Aldrich film or other; not only the extraordinary performance of Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story  but also the pathetic apparitions of these documentary heroes incarnated by Jean-Pierre Léaud in films by [François] Truffaut, Godard, [Jean] Eustache and [Jerzy] Skolimowski; in short, that mise en scène is not only mise en scène, that but also the contrary of what was conceived of in the wake of Delluc.
This episode in the history of French criticism is recounted and contextualised in Antoine de Baecque’s important book La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968. (2) De Baecque vividly sketches what was at stake at that historical, mid ‘60s moment: not only editorial control of Cahiers, torn as it was between classicists (led by Éric Rohmer) and modernists (led by Jacques Rivette), but also the broader challenge of the innovative forms of cinema emerging from many countries at once, in a dizzying progression of new waves: France, Brazil, Poland, Japan, Germany, Czechoslovakia …
This moment in the history of film, and the challenge it issued in relation to the available tools of film criticism, has largely been lost, forgotten. Mise en scène criticism goes on – in some places, at least – much as it did before the ‘60s, in virtually the exact terms circumscribed by Labarthe. As bizarre, exaggerated or purely polemical as it may seem to assert, I believe Labarthe’s point is still absolutely valid: I say that we still don’t have, today in 2004, a just dialogue between criticism and the films of Jean-Luc Godard. And Godard is only the tip of the iceberg of everything that began in the ‘60s.
Reading John Gibbs’ excellent Mise en scène: Film Style and Interpretation, it is not hard to form the impression of a critical practice still lolling in the sophisticated pleasures of The Philadelphia Story and Touch of Evil, not moving much beyond that Golden Age of Hollywood classicism at its most refined and complex (as in the work of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray or Vincente Minnelli, or further afield in Max Ophüls and Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger) – except when it can plausibly find the continuation of that tradition (for example, in the films of Bertrand Tavernier, John Sayles or Zhang Yimou).
Because it is so good at what it does, and so astute within the limits it sets for itself, Mise en scène: Film Style and Interpretation is a book worth arguing with. It stands proudly – even to the point of some myopia – with the tradition of criticism associated with Movie magazine in Britain. [2023 note: A tradition, I hasten to add, that I regard with very high respect, and to which I have contributed thrice since its online reincarnation in 2011.] Few film books are as staunchly British as this one: beyond some references to André Bazin, Cahiers, the haughty Cavellian William Rothman and a few select others, this text essentially suggests a critical history that begins in the pages of Oxford Opinion in the late ‘50s (in reaction to methods entrenched in Sight and Sound and Sequence) and travels across the seas to Canada’s CineAction today.
So, there is nothing French beyond Cahiers, such as Positif, or the remarkable essay collection La mise en scène under the direction of Jacques Aumont; (3) and nothing from Germany or Australia, Spain or Japan, Portugal or Italy, or any other film culture that has produced substantial and important work on mise en scène. (4) Gibbs, like any of us, is limited by linguistic capability; all the same, I think even a short, introductory text such as this could have given a more comprehensive sense of the international history of the concept and the shifting debates it has occasioned.
There is, above all, a lacuna at the heart of this book, and it is precisely the challenge of the ‘60s that Labarthe pinpointed (being dependent on the available English translations from Cahiers, Gibbs seems unaware of his crucial intervention, as well as similar material from the period).
There are several sorts of problems I have with Gibbs’ presentation of mise en scène. Almost inevitably, there are definitional problems, arising in part from Gibbs’ attachment to a fairly narrow patch of critical writing within that single, Movie-led tradition. And then, more seriously, there are historical problems in relation to the cinema’s development (through modernism and postmodernism) and the capacity of mise en scène as adumbrated to account for key, aesthetic changes within that period. Rather than painstakingly lay out all of these issues and their historic variables, I will proceed, in this short article, by a single cinema snapshot – in the hope of giving some sense of where mise en scène, as a cinematic practice, might be these days, and how far mise en scène, as a critical practice, is falling short of it.
But first, the definitional issues. Gibbs, it seems to me, never frontally tackles, let alone tries to resolve, the foundational ambiguity that has long haunted mise en scène criticism. Namely: does it indicate a quite specific phase in the filmmaking process – which would be the shooting or ‘principal photography’ phase, in which the scenes are blocked and shot within the décor – or is it a looser term, a metaphor almost, for film style taken more broadly and holistically? If it’s the former, then the definition of mise en scène must be meaningfully limited and not allowed to ‘bleed’ over other phases of the filmmaking process; and if it’s the latter, then is the displacement of the word style by mise en scène blocking our full appreciation of the complex levels of aesthetic form in cinema? This is what I believe has indeed happened in many places where film criticism is practiced.
The reasons why the moment of shooting has become a kind of fetish to mise en scène critics and analysts – especially of the auteurist variety, and I am an unapologetic auteurist myself – are multiple and not quickly disentangled. Suffice it to say here that, especially within the classical Hollywood context, shooting often seemed (rather mythically) to critics to be the bedrock, almost existential moment of freedom in a director’s art, no matter what was being imposed on the auteur before (studio-approved script) or after (studio-enforced edit).
If mise en scène in this sense is taken as the essence of film art, and of the auteur’s gesture, it enshrines the three-point diagram with which Bernardo Bertolucci paid fond homage to Sergio Leone and, behind him, a vast tradition of organic cinema: what matters, fundamentally, is that mobile, modulating, sinuous relationship between the camera, the actor, and the environment (whether natural or constructed). (5) And do not doubt it: when that organic moment of mise en scène happens with absolute grace and expressive perfection before your eyes in a film by Kenji Mizoguchi, Minnelli or Rivette, it is magic – one of the primal pleasures of cinema, and a great generator of its sensorial and semantic riches.
But, but, but … Gibbs immortalises a very early text by Robin Wood which, in a great outpouring of rhetorical enthusiasm, posits mise en scène as the catch-all for every notable aesthetic aspect of cinema – ending with the flourish, via Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, that mise en scène is “quite simply … ‘the organisation of time and space’” (pp. 56-7). Gibbs is cautious enough to present this passage as “neither the first or [sic] the last word on the subject”, but he ends up siding with Wood’s tendency (in this instance) to present mise en scène as “almost synonymous with direction” – especially as it cues what Gibbs calls the “transformative affect of film style … it is by means of the mise en scène that the director turns a script into a film” (p. 59).
But time and space – not to mention dramaturgy, rhythm, and the overall architectonic form of a film – can only in a limited way be determined by mise en scène strictly speaking. One can wonder – and this is a niggling flaw in much film analysis – whether mise en scène wholly determines even the image in its pristine, pictorial-theatrical state. For what comes out of the camera is still only raw material: for colour-grading and occasional reframing in the old days and, these days, extremely elaborate digital processes which often do far more to patch together a collage-like image than what any one single camera captures and delivers.
Now to the challenge of film history – and the moment in that history when mise en scène classical itself becomes something which can be referenced, cited, evoked; and also, thereby, bracketed, problematised and merrily interfered with.
In Godard’s Contempt (1963), there is an early scene, set in a villa’s garden, that encapsulates the feeling that this film is one that sits, nervously but cagily, astride eras – on the one side, the classical era, and on the other side, the modernist. [2023 Note: The following analysis was greatly developed by Cristina Álvarez López and I in an 18-minute audiovisual essay, Coming Apart (2018), viewable here.] It is a scene devoted to the first, mysterious rift in the marriage between Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Paul (Michel Piccoli). It is a scene about emotional distance, and to that end Godard adopts, magisterially, the mise en scène language he learnt watching and studying the great classical films – those of Minnelli, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Renoir, Hitchcock, and so many others. A pictorial and staging code that precisely hinges on frame-diagrams of near and far, close and distant, in a constant, dynamic modulation of (as the suggestive formulation of mise en scène goes) “bodies in space”.
Throughout this scene (Chapter 5 on the Criterion release), the shots of Camille alone, static, at a distance – accompanied by Georges Delerue’s plangent score – powerfully evoke the emotional abyss between the characters, especially when we feel these shots to be from Paul’s viewpoint. In a fine piece of theatrical, three-shot, wide-screen staging that would make any classicist proud, Godard devotes a portion of the scene to Paul’s increasingly unconfident explanation of why he was late for this appointment – fighting as he is to keep the attention of the brutish American producer Prokosch (who sits, withdrawing behind his sunglasses and drink) played by Jack Palance, and Camille, who exits the frame in supreme indifference.
But there are also, alongside these triumphs of a mastered mise en scène language, many perturbations of the classical schema. The second shot, which seems to begin as Paul’s POV cruise around Camille, ends with an abrupt look by her somewhere beyond the frame – cueing a cut which shows Paul in a spot nowhere near his supposed viewpoint. Already, something else is going in this play of regards, something quintessentially modern in the post-war cinema inaugurated by Rossellini, Antonioni and others: the look of Godard the auteur, or the film itself as a narrating (and desiring) agency, intervening ostentatiously in the staging.
In the scene’s second phase – which proceeds, with deliberate jerkiness and irresolution, through three repetitions of almost the same disaffected interaction, rather than employing a dramatic arc of development – Camille walks off and then stops. With her back still turned, the camera begins another unmotivated movement into her – this time triggering a brief and disconcerting montage flurry of shots (so disconcerting it has been snipped from some still-circulating prints) taken from all over the film.
Terms like flashback or flashforward prove useless to describe this interruption, or circumscribe it within one character or another’s subjective experience. And, by now, the pattern of the music has become noticeably odd: it comes on and off full-blast, with scarcely any conventional fading modulation. Even more remarkable is an astonishing example of Godard’s radical sound-editing and its brash manipulation of the given musical score, which he likes to treat like an aural found-object: alongside the montage’s first images, the music itself is dragged back a few beats and then violently re-started. Godard the techno DJ before his time!
Third phase of the scene, and the compositions and staging are becoming increasingly strange. There is a redundant cut from one angle on Camille sitting on a bench to another – except that, until the camera jokingly nudges itself over, this second shot obscures the star’s face behind a tree branch. To continue this sense of a mise en scène now internally discombobulated between the staging and the camera angle – what Alain Bergala describes as Godard’s “other side of the bouquet” technique (6) – we are treated to a frame that cuts Prokosch off at the waist as he hesitates before Camille (itself a wonderfully expressive bit of direction), and into which Paul must clumsily bend down to speak with his wife (also expressive of his increasing sense of awkward belittlement).
And then comes a second montage flurry, more mysterious than the first in its speed and variety of views (including, it would seem, test shots for costume, hair and make-up) – and serving, in its Eisensteinian graphic-matches on movement, to abruptly bump the filmic narration back to Paul and his trajectory, which is where this scene began.
Reading Raymond Bellour’s essay that sets out to critique and extend mise en scène as a concept – in the process generating its own montage-flurry of bewilderingly new but useful terms like mise en page, mise en phrase and mise en image (7) – I was struck by a simple but deadly limitation of mise en scène as a classical tool: its dependence on continuity within a scene. Continuity is the fundamental ground-rule of classical mise en scène, however much it might be subtly cheated on set or in the editing room: if the scene doesn’t flow seamlessly – and if the work of style is not (as some filmmakers say) invisible, or at least constrained – then none of the careful modulations of movement, gesture or regard can take place.
But how much cinema, now or ever, relies on this code of continuity? Certainly not Contempt. Of course, there are sublimely classical directors still working today, like Clint Eastwood. Scorsese is right on the trembling edge of the classical style: there is just enough of a shred of continuity left before the scene splinters into a modernist chaos. But look back, for instance, at the Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak. His magnificent The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) – walked-through (as it were) from start to end by Bellour in another, magisterial text (8) – combines an astonishingly rich repertoire of mise en scène staging with, at every cut, a truly (and explicitly) Eisensteinian sense of rupture, juxtaposition, graphic switches between diagonal formations, and so on.
We would be better suited, in this case, taking our cues from Raymond Durgnat’s “mixed mode” analyses of King Vidor (one of those key figures, like Edgar Ulmer, straining at and frequently bursting the borders of classicism, as much through innate, liberating vulgarity as through experimental impulse) than from the (rightly classic) text venerated by Gibbs, Victor Perkins’ Film as Film. (9)
On the topic of Perkins and Movie, a passage in a 1975 discussion between that magazine’s editors is revealing. In this text, Jim Hiller stands up for modern cinema (he went on to write about Jon Jost in a subsequent issue) while Perkins reminds us of the tenets of classicism.
JH: Mise en scène is primarily, surely, a descriptive term for something which can’t not exist.
VFP: That depends on what you take it to mean (…) the things my view of mise en scène has supremely do with are performance and décor, the spatial disposition of people in relation to their environment. (10)
But to truly take the measure of a modernist (and beyond) cinema, we need to explore terms from Eisenstein and Bellour like interstice or interval that have long been lost in mise en scène criticism. That is to say, more simply, that mise en scène analysis needs a reunion with theories of montage (long left fallow in Anglo-American cinema studies, though not elsewhere) – or, at the very least, découpage (shot breakdown, shot-patterning), an intermediate term between mise en scène and montage that was once strongly alive in the writings of Noël Burch and Brian Henderson. And découpage, pushed a little further back to its origin, returns us to an often-censored element in mise en scène criticism: namely, the script!
It is no wonder there are so many missed encounters down the decades between the film industry and cinephiles, when the former often pushes how-to-write-a-script wisdom without the slightest attention to film style (one recent manual even seriously advises budding screenwriters to not study finished films, only their published scripts), while the latter occasionally extol style in a perfect vacuum completely divorced from the cinematic possibilities already inherent and foreseen in the writing.
To today read Henderson’s 1971 speculation on the intrasequence cut in Ophüls, Murnau and Mizoguchi (11) – he also call it “mise en scène cutting”, which can strike us as a delightful or disturbing contradiction in terms – is enough to put into relief a typical film culture fetish arising from the mistiest excess of mise en scène adoration. I am speaking of the glorification of the long take (Béla Tarr and Hou Hsiao-hsien, take a bow): as if this incontestable, almost manic “organisation of time and space” by the director – second by grinding second and step by heavy step – stands, in its extremity, as the pinnacle or apotheosis of creative film art! The fact is that long takes are astonishingly difficult for any flesh-and-blood filmmaker to pull off (I don’t simply mean technically), and they flop far more often than they fire on any aesthetic and dramaturgical level.
The long take, like every aspect of mise en scène properly speaking, must be placed – as Noël Burch indicated way back in the midst of the ‘60s revolution (12) – into a dialectical relationship with every other distinct level of film style. This is a relationship in which not only organic fullness but also corrosive lack is at work – just as we experience it whenever Wong Kar-wai begins treating and mixing his beautifully staged images (and their speeds) via various plastic manipulations; or when Alain Resnais takes us, with a tracking shot or a mere flick-pan, between or through different levels and registers of reality dwelling inside the same shot in Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Mélo (1986); or when Chantal Akerman and Tsai Ming-liang create unbearably charged diagonals in their stagings that link tensely static characters and/or objects in the frame, but diagonals that are rarely bridged via physical movement – thus creating a virtual or imaginary mise en scène of possible movements and connections that only the spectator’s mental and emotional activity can supply.
John Gibbs’ book is not a eulogy to the sloppily heroic long take. (13) In his careful and detailed analyses, he takes us through many crucial moves – of gesture, camera placement, spatial relations, and cutting – that create thematic meaning in scenes from Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) and Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1958). The book is worth buying, devouring and savouring for these analyses alone. One wonders, however, how Gibbs would fare trying to apply his tools to a compacted, multi-scene sequence from Skolimowski, Dušan Makavejev, Abel Ferrara, and Manoel De Oliveira … or almost any branch of the avant-garde.
Mise en scène does not disappear in any of these filmic practices; but it evolves, sometimes violently, and the English-language, classical tradition of mise en scène criticism has yet to face the force of that evolution – or the complexity of its modern history.
Postscript 2023: This essay offered me an opportunity to sketchily advance some ideas that I developed fully in my 2014 book Mise en scène and Film Style (Palgrave) – published, I am honoured and proud to say, in the ‘Close Readings in Film and Television’ series co-edited by Doug Pye and John Gibbs!
1. André Labarthe, “Mort d’un mot”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 195 (November 1967), p. 66. back
2. Antoine de Baecque, La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, 2003), pp. 341-342. back
3. Jacques Aumont (ed.), La Mise en scène (Brussels: De Boeck, 2000). back
4. I merely mention here, among many others, the critics associated in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the German magazine Filmkritik, such as Frieda Grafe and Harun Farocki; Shigehiko Hasumi, the teacher and writer who has influenced an entire generation of contemporary Japanese filmmakers; and the texts I collected in Film – Matters of Style (Perth: Continuum, 1992). back
5. Bernardo Bertolucci, “Once Upon a Time in Italy”, Film Comment (July-August 1989), p. 78. back
6. Alain Bergala, “The Other Side of the Bouquet”, in Raymond Bellour and Mary Lea Bandy (eds), Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992), pp. 57-74. back
7. Raymond Bellour, “Figures aux allures de plans”, in La Mise en scène, pp. 109-126. [2023 update: The conceptual apparatus of this essay was expanded in Bellour’s milestone book, Le Corps du cinéma (Paris: P.O.L, 2009).] back
9. Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); V. F. Perkins, Film as Film (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972). back
10. Ian Cameron et al, “Movie Discussion”, Movie, no. 20 (Spring 1975), p. 7. back
11. Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), pp. 48-61. back
12. Noël Burch, Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973). back
13. Subsequently, Gibbs and Douglas Pye edited a fine and probing collection of essays on this topic: The Long Take: Critical Approaches (Palgrave, 2017). back