Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 20, June 2004



Adrian Martin


Placing *Mise en scène*:

An Argument with John Gibbs's _Mise-en-scène_



John Gibbs

_Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 190336406X

128 pp.


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 a number of moves:


-- He places *mise en scène* as a term that 'symbolises well a substantial history of cinematic art . . . effectively applied, with equal ease' to films 'from _L'Arroseur arrosé_ . . . to the latest Otto Preminger'. Its domain is what is 'beyond the subject' of a film -- i.e. how that subject is rendered or treated by way of the film's form or style.


-- He summarises *mise en scène* analysis as a well-established protocol in film criticism: 'Since [Louis] Delluc, to judge a film is *always* to judge the performance of the actors, the quality of the dialogue, the beauty of the photography, the efficacy of the montage . . .'.


-- He suggests that such a mode of criticism has scarcely evolved 'for thirty or forty years' (thus returning us to 1937 or 1927!), or rather that, if it has evolved, it has done so 'only inside a domain defined by the concept of *mise en scène*'.


-- He suggests (and this is the central polemical thrust of his piece) that there has developed a newer kind of cinema which can no longer be discussed in terms of *mise en scène*, and hence is accounted for badly or not at all by critics ('I say that we still don't have, today in 1967, a *just* dialogue between criticism and the films of Godard').


-- He considers the response of _Cahiers_ (with its will to encompass this new cinema) to the problem of time-lag in the domain of conceptual and critical language. In his (insider's) view, _Cahiers_ was trying valiantly to adjust the term of *mise en scène* (with which it had been principally associated in the '50s) to new circumstances -- 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 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 Truffaut, Godard, Eustache and Skolimowski; in short, that *mise en scène* is not only *mise en scène*, but also the contrary of what was conceived of in the wake of Delluc.


Given these contortions on the part of _Cahiers_, Labarthe persuasively asks: 'What is the use of this term that we must ceaselessly explain, ceaselessly reupholster with circumstantial clarifications, according to the films and the auteurs?' He thus recommends that the term be abandoned, or rather grasped as the name of a classical practice of cinema that is, in 1967, outmoded. He ends by calling for concepts from elsewhere, 'living domains like advertising, cybernetics, even painting, sculpture and music', and encouraging attentiveness to this new cinema: 'Come on, open your eyes: the cinema has moved on. Don't try any longer to hold it down. Chase it!'


This episode in the history of French criticism is recounted and contextualised in Antoine de Baecque's important recent book _La Cinéphilie. Invention d'un regard, histoire d'une culture 1944-1968_. 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 Eric 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 . . . [2]


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 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 Godard. And Godard is only the tip of the iceberg of everything that began in the '60s.


Reading John Gibbs's 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_, and 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 beyond Hollywood in Max Ophuls and Michael Powell), except when it can plausibly find the continuation of that tradition (for example, in the films of Bertrand Tavernier 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_ in Britain (a tradition, I hasten to add, that I regard with very high respect). Few film books are as staunchly British as this one: beyond some references to André Bazin, _Cahiers_, 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 collection _La mise en scène_ under the direction of Jacques Aumont; [3] and nothing from Germany or Australia or Japan or any other film culture which 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 which Labarthe pinpointed (being dependent on the available English translations from _Cahiers_, Gibbs seems unaware of this crucial intervention, as well as similar material from the period).


There are several sorts of problems I have with Gibbs's presentation of *mise en scène*. Almost inevitably, there are definitional problems, arising in part from Gibbs's attachment to a fairly narrow patch of critical writing within the 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 rather 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 appealed (rather mythically) to critics as 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 Mizoguchi or 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 organization of time and space'' (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' (59).


But, strictly speaking, time and space -- not to mention dramaturgy, rhythm, and the overall architectonic form of a film -- can only in a very limited way be determined by *mise en scène*. 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' or delivers.


Now to the challenge of film history, and the moment in that history when classical *mise en scène* 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 feel of this film as one that sits nervously but cagily astride eras -- on the one side, the classical era, and on the other side, the modernist era. 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. This is a pictorial and staging code which precisely hinges on frame-diagrams of near and far, close and distant, in a constant, dynamic modulation of 'bodies in space'.


Throughout this scene of _Contempt_ (Chapter 5 on the superb Criterion DVD 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) and Camille (who exits the frame in supreme indifference).


But there are also, along these triumphs of a mastered *mise en scène* language, many perturbations of the classical schema in this scene. Its 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 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 of the scene.


In the second phase of the scene -- which proceeds, with deliberate jerkiness and irresolution, through three repetitions of pretty much the same disaffected interaction, rather than employing a dramatic 'arc' development -- Camille walks off and then stops. With her back still turned, the camera begins another 'unmotivated' movement towards her -- this time triggering a brief and disconcerting montage flurry of shots taken from all over the film (so disconcerting it has been snipped from some still-circulating prints). 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 on this soundtrack 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: with the first images of the montage the music itself is dragged back a few beats and then violently re-started. Godard the techno DJ before his time!


By the third phase of the scene 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 -- 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 pages*, *mise en phrases*, and *mise en images* [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 a 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 'invisible' or at least constrained to this extent -- then none of the careful modulations of movement, gesture, 'regard', and so on, 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 Benagli master Ritwik Ghatak. His magnificent _The Cloud-Capped Star_ (1960) -- 'walked through' from start to end by Bellour in another text [8] -- combines an astonishingly rich repertory 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 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, V. F. Perkins's _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 have 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 informs the regular reviewing of Jonathan Rosenbaum. And *decoupage*, 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 Ophuls, Murnau, and Mizoguchi [11] -- he also called 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 'organization 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 this 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, non 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's book is very far from being a eulogy to the sloppily heroic long take. 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 films including Sayles's _Lone Star_ (1996) and Sirk's _Imitation of Life_ (1958). The book is worth buying, devouring, and savouring for these analyses alone. But one wonders how he would fare trying to apply his tools to a compacted, multi-scene sequence from Skolimowski, Makavejev, Ferrara, 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.


Monash University

Victoria, Australia





1. André Labarthe, 'Mort d'un mot', _Cahiers du cinéma_, no. 195, November 1967, p. 66.


2. Antoine de Baecque, _La Cinéphilie. Invention d'un regard, histoire d'une culture 1944-1968_ (Paris: Fayard, 2003), pp. 341-2.


3. Jacques Aumont, ed., _La mise en scène_ (Brussels: De Boeck, 2000).


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 collected in _Film -- Matters of Style_ (Perth: Continuum, 1992).


5. Bernardo Bertolucci, 'Once Upon a Time in Italy', _Film Comment_, July-August 1989, p. 78.


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.


7. Raymond Bellour, 'Figures aux allures de plans', in Aumont, ed., _La Mise en scène_, pp. 109-126.


8. Raymond Bellour, 'The Film We Accompany', _Rouge_, no. 3, May 2004 <>.


9. Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, _King Vidor, American_ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); V. F. Perkins, _Film as Film_ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).


10. Ian Cameron, et al, '_Movie_ Discussion', _Movie_, no. 20, Spring 1975, p. 7.


11. Brian Henderson, _A Critique of Film Theory_ (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), pp. 48-61.


12. Noël Burch, _Theory of Film Practice_ (London: Secker and Warburg, 1973).



Copyright © Adrian Martin, May 2004



Adrian Martin, 'Placing *Mise en scene*: An Argument with John Gibbs's _Mise-en-scene_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 20, June 2004 <>.



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