What is Mise en scène?
(Note: for an encyclopedia of film theory, I was asked by the editors to summarise and comment upon my own understanding and use of the concept of mise en scène, particularly as reflected in my 1992 essay “Mise en scène is Dead, or: The Expressive, the Excessive, the Technical and the Stylish”. The assignment provided me with a way of summarising my then in-progress book Mise en scène and Film Style. – September 2015)
“Mise en scène is Dead” is a sixteen-thousand-word text, published in 1992 in Continuum, an Australian journal of media studies. It is a distillation of university courses I taught on film style and aesthetics over the ten preceding years. The aim of the article is to survey and evaluate the different, major approaches to analysing and understanding the formal work of style in cinema – all of the significant choices that a director and his or her collaborators make in relation to the use of colour, movement (of both the camera and the actors), rhythm, lighting, editing, music, and so on. This approach to cinema goes under various names: close analysis, formal analysis, detailed analysis, and the extravagant misnomer frame-by-frame analysis.
In every medium or art form, aesthetic issues focus on a key question: what is the relationship of form (or style) to content (the narrative world and its implied meaning for the spectator)? Both in teaching and writing this material, I was struck by the historic tension (sometimes an all-out, polemical war) between two broad schools or types of analysis – schools that take diametrically opposed stances on the style/content relationship.
On the one hand, there is a classical approach associated with critics such as V.F. Perkins and Robin Wood (from Movie magazine in UK), Jean-Loup Bourget and Alain Masson (Positif magazine in France), André Bazin and Éric Rohmer (Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s). The classical aesthetics of these critics is what I term the expressive approach. It rests on a thematic premise: films, like literary or theatrical works in a narrative-based tradition of drama or comedy, are seen to possess themes – distillations of ideas, questions or propositions. What expresses and embodies these themes are, in the first place, the scripted properties of plot and character, and then, more decisively, the integrated, systematic ensemble of stylistic choices made by the director.
Some filmmakers favoured by critics of an expressive tendency include Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray, Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi and Clint Eastwood. Classical film aesthetics – just like accounts of classical architecture, music or the 19th century novel – stresses qualities such as balance, order, elegance, logic, symmetry, patterning, and the meaningful repetition of motifs. Even more crucially than these surface qualities, expressive criticism seeks what popular vernacular calls deep meaning: epiphanies or insights that emerge through the film’s unfolding, often fully unveiled in the final scene, offering a profound knowledge of how people live within a social, personal or philosophical context. It is important to add, as Perkins (1990) insists, that so-called deep or rich meanings are not literally hidden in a film; rather, they are implied, and thus form a pattern that demands to be noticed and explicated.
The second loose school or group emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s. Associated with the rise of intellectual movements including structuralism, semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the neo-Marxist political theory elaborated by Louis Althusser, I call this, in relation to aesthetic analysis, the excessive approach. It can be aligned most closely with the form of theory and critique that labeled itself post-structuralism. The first crucial ‘move’ of the post-structuralist school was to downplay the role of the auteur or director as the central, controlling consciousness behind a work; rather, following the lead of Roland Barthes in literary theory, a film was seen as a text, “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1977, 146) – formed more by storytelling habit, stylistic convention and the reigning cultural ideology than by any specific, artistic intent.
By the same token, all film texts are (according to this hypothesis) inherently heterogeneous, multi-layered, made up of many types of often clashing materials – not homogenous, as in the classical ideal of a smoothly combined, polished fusion of elements. Thus, filmic texts can easily ‘lose control’ of themselves, producing surprising, hybrid combinations of elements – and this is the positive phenomenon of excess (or rupture as it was often called at the time). Key exponents of the excessive approach included, internationally, Peter Wollen, Stephen Heath, Tom Conley and Marie-Claire Ropars.
In aesthetic terms, this means that style in cinema is no longer interpreted as the servant of content, or the vehicle that orders and articulates meaning, as in the expressive approach. Style, on the contrary, performs on the surface of a film, no longer providing clues for the spectator’s grasp of a deep meaning. Style, therefore, exceeds the process of its thematic interpretation – and its does so because of its evident materiality as a screen phenomenon, something akin to what Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and other directors have described as pure film. The idea of materiality (which is an indispensable one for film studies) indicates two things: first, that a film is an evidently constructed, composed work; and secondly, that it generates effects (as well as emotional affects) within spectators, such as shock, surprise, delight, anxiety, arousal, contemplation, introspection, and so on.
Certain filmmakers seem to offer a close fit with this theoretical approach, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Raúl Ruiz, Pedro Almodóvar and Vincente Minnelli among them. Particular forms of underground and queer cinema (such as the short films of the Kuchar brothers) were ‘redeemed’ by the excessive outlook, while being excluded from discussion or recognition within the classical canon. The excessive viewpoint also favours certain genres that are stylistically histrionic by their very nature: melodrama, the musical, horror, thriller and action films.
Writing in 1992, I attempted to break the seductive binary opposition of classical vs. post-structural approaches, by noting some intermediary stylistic options already very prevalent in film production of the period. These options were what I termed the loose fit relationship between style and content, where a broad set of stylistic strategies (such as a particular colour scheme, use of music, or intermittent montage sequences) was ‘laid upon’ the story, as in films by Michael Mann or Oliver Stone; and the mannerist method (named after the movement in painting), where style draws attention to its own display (as in the work of Tim Burton or Lynne Ramsay), whilst stopping short of wholesale excess or chaotic heterogeneity.
By multiplying the stylistic options, I sought to free the relationship of style to content from the prevalence of stark metaphors of power: style in the service of content, or style overpowering content. I attempted to introduce a less heated, and more finely graded concept: economy. The idea is that each film, or each type of film, proposes a particular balance or interrelationship of style and content; no proportion is inherently superior to any other. It is this balance, different from case to case, which I describe as an economy.
In the context of 1992, my essay also placed itself within a debate about the neo-formalist method of film studies, as practiced by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and others. Neo-formalism tends to reject the analytical strategies of both classicism and post-structuralism. While finding its narrow self-definition of a commitment to the historical poetics of cinema too limiting, I wished to credit neo-formalism for continuing an attentiveness to form that can be traced back through many significant critics who belong to no particular school, including Manny Farber, Frieda Grafe, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Noël Burch.
General discussions of style or aesthetics in cinema tend to congregate – sometimes misleadingly – around the term mise en scène. In its strict, conventional sense, mise en scène is a practice derived from theatre, referring to the staging or choreography of bodies within a set. This strict definition carries over to the cinema, in the arrangement of what many critics refer to as ‘bodies in space’ – no longer the space defined for the theatre audience by the traditional, proscenium arch, but the mobile, ever-changing space primarily defined by the camera, its positions and movements. Some critics (such as Alain Bergala 2004) continue to insist on this operation – the moment of the director filming bodies in space, whether in fiction or documentary mode – as the central, crucial aspect of mise en scène, indeed even the essence of cinema itself.
However, when most critics (such as Gibbs 2002) speak of mise en scène in film, they tend to use it as a designation for all aspects of style, including pre-production conceptualisation (shot lists, storyboarding, set and costume design), and the post-production processes of picture editing, sound design, and (increasingly in our time) digital treatments of the image. Although we risk imprecision by using the term in this way, there is no doubt that, to the general film-literate public, mise en scène has come to mean something like ‘the director’s creative resources’ – and, as such, it is still a useful shorthand.
The argument of my 1992 essay sets out from the bold declaration in 1975 by V.F. Perkins that changes in cinematic style and language since the 1960s can be considered in terms of “the death of mise en scène” (1975, 6). In order to interrogate this claim, I distinguish between mise en scène as an artistic or professional practice (i.e., something that filmmakers themselves do, even if not necessarily under this label) and mise en scène as an idea, theory or approach (i.e., something conceptualised and debated by critics and theorists). While there is overlap and sometimes synchronicity between these two practices, there can also be a disconnection or a time-lag: films may be exploring new areas or configurations of style that commentators have not yet noticed, absorbed or analysed in depth.
My intuition was that, while one kind of mise en scène may well have seemed dead or dying by 1975, newer forms of style in cinema were indeed also emerging, and continue to do so today, in the 21st century. What Perkins perceived as a lost art was, in effect, the classical style of cinema that he, like the other critics of his ilk, favoured. Classical filmmaking has never completely died (we see refined versions of it today in the work of Bertrand Tavernier or Lone Scherfig), but there can be no doubt that filmmaking, on all its diverse levels (commercial, independent, experimental, documentary, animation, etc), has developed in many fruitful directions since the highpoint of classicism in the 1950s. This diversification of stylistic options went hand-in-glove with the popular movement of post-modernism, particularly strong in the 1980s and ‘90s, that reveled in the simultaneous existence of multiple aesthetic strategies drawing from both high and low culture.
Since the writing of my essay, a crucial advance in the theorisation of film aesthetics has been provided by Jacques Aumont’s edited collection La mise en scène (2000). Two key ideas emerge here. First, the rigorous concept of a social mise en scène, which seeks to draw filmic creation a little further away from the abstraction of an auteur’s sheer creativity, and to ground it within what Umberto Eco once described as the kinesic and proxemic dimensions of any civilisation’s social codes: i.e., how people are allowed to move, how they are meant to behave in any given situation, how close they are able to stand next to each other, whether they can touch one another and in what specific ways, and so on. With the hindsight provided by this idea, we can discern which directors are particularly adept at drawing out and paying upon such codes: Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Luchino Visconti, John Ford and Roy Andersson offer strong examples.
The second concept that has emerged in the general rethinking and expansion of mise en scène – and has been born from recent developments in international art – is the idea of the dispositif. This term, translatable as apparatus, sometimes refers to the general ‘set-up’ of the cinematic viewing experience (seated spectator, screen, projector, darkened room). In aesthetic terms, however, it refers to the rules or strategies by which a film (or any audiovisual work) can be generated: a game-like approach that often involves (as in the experimental writings of the Oulipo authors) the canny invention and imposition of constraints. Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s film The Five Obstructions (2003) is the best-known illustration of a dispositif procedure, and much contemporary installation art (such as that of Agnès Varda) explores the possibilities of procedure-based work; looking back, however, we also can see that some of cinema’s most celebrated auteurs, including Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Chantal Akerman, derived their ‘signature style’ from a specific, set of self-imposed restrictions (such as deliberately inexpressive acting, the eschewal of shot/reverse shot structure, or minimal camera movement).
In a more general sense, the dispositif idea opens mise en scène to a more inclusive, holistic conception of aesthetic method than it has previously enjoyed: according to Raymond Bellour (2012), mise en scène is its classical formulation is only one possible way of organising the relation of images and sounds in cinema. His powerful example is Godard’s groundbreaking ‘film essay’ series Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998): it has little mise en scène in the conventional sense of staging bodies in a fictive space, but a great deal of arranging and relating of shot-fragments and soundtrack snippets, thus giving rise to a slew of new terms: mise en phrase (the ‘dropping in’ of a verbal or written quotation), mise en page (the graphic design or layout of the screen’s rectangle), and so on. All these diverse forms of stylistic organisation today deserve to be classified and integrated by film theory and criticism.
Since writing the essay in 1992, I have found the recent method of figural analysis (Brenez 1998) to be an approach that combines the lesson of cinematic heterogeneity with a regard for formal logic and hermeneutic meaning (see my contribution to Balcerzak & Sperb 2009). And my 2014 book Mise en scène and Film Style attempts to trace the full range of productive applications of the term mise en scène, from its initial classical conception in the work of Louis Delluc (1919) through to the many and varied dispositifs of contemporary digital, audiovisual art.
Aumont, Jacques (ed). 2000. La mise en scène. Bruxelles: De Boeck.
Balcerzak, Scott & Sperb, Jason. 2009. Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture Vol. 1. London: Wallflower Press.
Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image–Music–Text. London: Fontana.
Bellour, Raymond. 2012. La Querelle des dispositifs. Paris: P.O.L.
Bergala, Alain. 2004. ‘De l'impureté ontologique des créatures de cinéma’. Trafic 50: 23-36.
Brenez, Nicole. 1998. De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L'invention figurative au cinéma. Bruxelles: De Boeck.
Delluc, Louis. 1919. Cinéma et cie. Paris: Grasset.
Gibbs, John. 2002. Mise en scène: Film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower Press.
Martin, Adrian. 1992. ‘Mise en scène is Dead, or: The Expressive, the Excessive, the Technical and the Stylish’. Continuum 5 (2): 87-140.
–––––. 2014. Mise en scène and Film Style. London: Palgrave/Macmillan.
Perkins, V.F. et al. 1975. ‘The Return of Movie’. Movie 20: 1-25.
Perkins, V.F. 1990. ‘Must We Say What They Mean? Film Criticism and Interpretation’. Movie 34/5: 1-7.
© Adrian Martin March 2013