Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation – capsule review

Mise-en-scène can be a thorny critical area for students and scholars of production design. Nearly seventy years after its deployment by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, the term still carries the baggage of auteurism. Much of the scholarly writing on mise-en-scène is auteurist in nature and continues to argue that a film’s mise-en-scène is solely the product or work of the director. In fact, so wedded are the concepts that in some writing it’s less an argument than an assumption. It’s not uncommon for mise-en-scène analysis to make no mention whatsoever of individual production designers.

Because of its association with close formal analysis, mise-en-scène analysis is also often regarded as outdated and maybe a bit musty, along with other types of textual analysis. 

And it doesn’t help that the definition of the term seems to shift somewhat over time and with the user. Ask a group of film scholars whether mise-en-scène includes actors or lighting and you’re likely to get as many answers as there are scholars in the group.

Despite these perceived drawbacks, however, mise-en-scène analysis can be incredibly useful when studying production design. It has a rich history and there are numerous texts to draw on, including some of the foundational texts of modern film studies by writers like Laura Mulvey or Thomas Elsaesser. And because it’s so wedded to questions of authorship, it can be appropriated by scholars of production design interested (like myself) in arguing for the role that design plays in a film’s authorship.

John Gibbs’s 2002 monograph Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (Wallflower) is a very useful primer on both the concept itself and the history and state of scholarship (at least, that is, up to 2002. Later in this series of capsule reviews, I hope to look at more recent additions to the field, particularly Adrian Martin’s Mise en Scène and Film Style, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

In many ways, the book is a primer on the topic and, as such, is thoughtful and patient in its explication of what—in Gibbs’s reading—mise-en-scène encompasses, where the term comes from, how its meaning has changed over time, historical examples of its use, and why mise-en-scène analysis remains a potent tool for grappling with film meaning beyond narrative analysis.

I’m particularly receptive to Gibbs’s definition of mise-en-scène, and I can see myself teaching it in the future. For Gibbs, mise-en-scène arises out of a confluence of visual film elements. He describes it as, “the contents of the frame and the way that they are organised” (5). Expanding, he writes:

What are the contents of the frame? They include lighting, costume, décor, properties, and the actors themselves. The organisation of the contents of the frame encompasses the relationship of the actors to one another and to the décor, but also their relationship to the camera, and thus the audience’s view. So in talking about mise-en-scène, one is also talking about framing, camera movement, the particular lens employed and other photographic decisions. Mise-en-scène therefore encompasses both what the audience can see, and the way in which we are invited to see it. It refers to many of the major elements of communication in the cinema, and the combinations through which they operate expressively. (5)

To me, this is as clear, succinct, but also as expansive a definition of mise-en-scène that I’ve encountered. It also happens to appeal to the scholar of multiple-authorship in me. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that multiple-authorship is a kind of dialogism in which the various departments and their practitioners make creative contributions together out of which arises the finished film. And while the fingerprints of all those practitioners can be detected on the film, the final product, or utterance, becomes something more than each of those individual parts as measured on their own. Gibbs’s definition of mise-en-scène seems to support such an approach to me, and I feel I’m likely to appropriate it in ways he may not have anticipated (which, more on that below).

Once he’s defined the term, Gibbs spends much of the books first three chapters discussing each of the contributory elements on its own, with fine examples from older and more contemporary films (including some fantastic work with John Sayles’s Lone Star (Sony Picture Classics 1996)). He then moves on to discuss the relationships between all these elements, and finally, how coherence between the different elements can be detected and then read as deeper, more complex textual layers of a film. He includes a strong chapter on how mise-en-scène analysis led to serious re-evaluation of film melodrama, and the book concludes with his own mise-en-scène analysis of Imitation of Life (Universal 1958).

In the midst of all this, Gibbs includes a chapter on mise-en-scène’s critical history, which is a wholly auteurist exercise in director-centred film scholarship. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a director-centred approach to film studies—in a way, it’s the discipline’s bread and butter. However, a distinction is growing between “director-centred,” wherein scholars can continue to analyse the work of specific individuals, and “auteurist,” which argues that all that is good, relevant, or meaningful in a film comes only (or even mainly) from the director alone. 

When scholars like Gibbs make eloquent arguments for mise-en-scène’s inclusion of such elements as décor, performance, and lighting and framing, but then chalks them all up to the director simply because he “makes the final decision” (when, truth be told, he often doesn’t), it seems a missed opportunity, to me, to explore a more complex approach to film authorship. Gibbs writes: “Mise-en-scène can form the basis of an argument about authorship because of if one recognises the expressive value of the mise-en-scène then the director must logically be the artist responsible” (61-62).

I don’t agree that this is necessarily logical at all. The archival turn in film studies over the last fifteen to twenty years has helped to make it increasingly clear that directors—even some of history’s most renowned—have often called on or even relied on their collaborators in cinematography, production design, editing, and so on to make decisions for them.

Much of this work has come about in the years after Gibbs published the monograph, and perhaps with such hindsight he might re-evaluate his stance on director-driven auteurism. Or perhaps not.

In any case, it’s a small part of a book that is otherwise highly instructive, well written, and highly engaged with historical instances of mise-en-scène analysis (which, to be fair, tends to be heavily auteurist in nature). I would definitely recommend it to students, and many scholars, still grappling with the tricky question of just what mise-en-scène is.

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