ABC’s of Film

Some Fancy French Words: Mis-en-Scene

If you want to sound smart when talking about movies, this is the post for you! Just pepper some allusions to mis-en-scene (pronounced mees-on-sen)  in there and you’re gold. This phrase seems much more complex than it actually is (probably because its French, for some reason things in French sound waaayy scarier). I promise, though, you know much more about it than you think.

A film can be split up into two parts:  style and narrative. Narrative is pretty much the plot, dialogue and the more literary aspects of a film. Style can be split up further into cinematography, sound, editing and mis-en-scene. Out of those four, three are pretty clear. Cinematography is location, lens and angle of the camera, sound is sound (I don’t have much to say on that one) and editing is the relation of one shot to another.  They all have special awards at the Oscars; thus, we are all mildly aware of them. Yet, mis-en-scene has been relegated to scholarly discourse. When is the last time you read a movie review that mentioned it? That’s what I thought.

I’ve been teasing you with the definition long enough, here it is: mis-en-scene literally means “putting into the scene.” It is a loan word from theater. In film, it refers to essentially everything that appears on-screen/in the frame. It involves the contents and the way they are organized in the shot. These contents are lighting, costume/makeup, decor and the actors. Mis-en-scene is predominately a director’s job. He/She is responsible for all these choices. When people speak of a certain director and their style, mis-en-scene is what they are talking about.

Mis-en-scene is all about atmosphere. Its not plot, but rather it is what creates the “feel” you get from the movie. Its the rain falling while the car drives off. Its the stark contrast of black and white while the man with the gun approaches. Its the actresses incredulous laugh as she undergoes an injustice. Its the moment where the young girl appears in her glamorous dress on the top of the stairs. None of these scenes are vital to the story. We don’t need to see any of them for the plot to be linear and understandable. Without them, however, what would the movies be? All these small details, or tangential moments, may seem useless, but they are what separate the good movies from the really freaking fantastic ones.

If you want to see an example of mis-en-scene creating an atmosphere read my previous post. In there I don’t speak about plot at all. When I talk about the lady on the boat, its all mis-en-scene.

The scenes you remember, the moments you love are mis-en-scene. You go to a movie for a good story, sure. But if that were it, movies wouldn’t be all that popular. People would just stay home and read. You go to a movie for the visual. All the style aspects are a part of that, but mis-en-scene is what you really take home. So, next time you watch to a movie think of your favorite moments. Is it a shadow cast on a wall in a horror flick, an actresses’ moving tears, and so on? And next time you tell a friend about these moments, just mention how it is part of a complex and dynamic mis-en-scene created by the director, and watch them look at you with confusion. Its fun sometimes.

[In this post, I referenced John Gibb’s Mise-en-Scene: Film Style and Interpretation. Its a good book! If you want to learn more about this topic, definitely check it out.]