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What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

by A.D. Jameson
June 25, 2014 4:59 AM
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1. What Is Mise-en-scène?  

Any student of the cinema quickly encounters the term mise-en-scène, and often comes away the worse for the wear. The word—or is it words?—is long and funny-looking (to those who don’t speak French). Making matters worse, the term isn’t always spelled the same way: sometimes there’s an accent, sometimes there aren’t any hyphens, and sometimes it’s written in roman type, not italics.

The term’s meaning is similarly complex, having shifted many times over the years since its creation; it has also gotten bound up in several different arguments, many of which we no longer inhabit directly. In this article, I aim to survey that evolution, paying special attention to how it has become associated with only particular types of filmmaking—the cinema of the long take. Finally, I’ll argue against that tendency, and attempt to demonstrate the relevance of mise-en-scène to the short take.

First things first. Mise-en-scène was applied to film in the 1950s by the French critics writing at Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema). They borrowed it from French theater, where it essentially referred to everything that appears on the stage (it literally means “putting in the scene”). The thinking was that a film’s mise-en-scène consisted of everything that the camera sees: the setting, the lighting, the actors, their performances (including blocking), costumes, makeup, props. It also referred to how those elements were arranged within the frame—in other words, it was synonymous with the shot’s composition.

A few problems sprang up immediately. The first was that the Cahiers critics never defined their term all that precisely. Alexandre Astruc famously called mise-en-scène “a song, a rhythm, a dance” (267); in a 1998 interview, Astruc’s Cahiers colleague Jacques Rivette claimed, “Here’s a good definition of mise en scène—it’s what’s lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz” (Bonnaud). I thought at the time that Rivette was simply being cheeky, but there’s a way in which he’s also deadly serious: he means that All About Eve, despite literally having lighting and staging and props and settings, etc., nonetheless somehow lacks a certain special quality, which is mise-en-scène. Delving into the Cahiers writing of the 1950s makes it apparent that there was, right from the start, a tendency to define the concept loosely, poetically—which is what led critic Brian Henderson to later call the term “undefined” (315).

The second problem occurs when you consider how people who make films see different things than those who view films. When you watch a play, the stage is in front of you, and it’s clear what’s on it and what isn’t. But films differ from theater in two key aspects. One, the camera frames the image. Two, cinema includes cuts (edits).

Let’s say you’re making a film, shooting a scene on a busy street. The camera sees only so much of that street, but you, being there, can see the whole thing (and the actors can see the whole thing, which presumably influences their performances). Where does the mise-en-scène begin and where does it end? What’s more, a lot of what you shoot won’t end up in the film—parts of takes, and perhaps even whole takes (what we today call “deleted scenes”), will end up on the cutting room floor, or in some separate portion of a hard drive. What happens to the mise-en-scène of those images?

This is why mise-en-scène isn’t really a production term— as Astruc had already noted by 1959, it’s not something that filmmakers talk about when they’re shooting (267). Instead, it’s a critic’s term, referring to the content of shots that appear in the finished film. And since it refers to the content of the shot, then it also must refer to camera movements, since panning and tracking changes the shot’s content. (The famous long take in Goodfellas that follows Henry Hill and his date as they enter the Copacabana via the kitchen features more than one setting, as well as numerous actors, props, costumes, and so on.)

So mise-en-scène refers to the entirety of any given shot: the stuff that was filmed, as well as how it is framed (and how that changes). And in many places, the term has more or less survived into the present day in this form. For instance, here’s how Ed Sikov’s Film Studies: An Introduction (2010) defines it:

“Everything—literally everything—in the filmed image is described by the term mise-en-scene: it's the expressive totality of what you see in a single film image. Mise-en-scene consists of all the elements placed in front of the camera to be photographed: settings, props, lighting, costumes, makeup, and figure behavior (meaning actors, their gestures, and their facial expressions). In addition, mise-en-scene includes the camera's actions and angles and the cinematography, which simply means photography for motion pictures. Since everything in the filmed image comes under the heading of mise-en-scene, the term’s definition is a mouthful, so a shorter definition is this: Mise-en-scene is the totality of expressive content within the image.” (5–6, italics in the original)

But when one stops to think about this concept, one sees how even this is problematic. For one thing, how is mise-en-scène any different from the term “shot”? Or “composition”? Obviously, we’re not dealing with the actual things in the shot—the actual setting, the actual props—but a two-dimensional record of them, frozen in a particular arrangements. What’s more, if every shot is essentially its mise-en-scène, and a film is made up entirely of shots, then isn’t mise-en-scène in fact synonymous with the entire film? Which is to say, isn’t mise-en-scène synonymous with cinema itself?

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  • Jandy | June 29, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    I guess I've always considered mise-en-scene more or less synonymous with "composition," in terms of how elements are arranged within a shot (and by extension how they move within a shot). I think I would define montage as creating meaning through time and mise-en-scene as creating meaning through space. I'm not sure that contradicts anything you've said - I would define them in opposition to each other, sure, as different ways to create/express meaning, but not in the sense that one is more useful/valuable than the other. They work in concert to create a totality of meaning through space and time, as you've analyzed in Scott Pilgrim.

    I think that Hollywood now tends to rely on editing more than on mise-en-scene. As you mention in your comment below on Bay, he may not cut faster than Wright, but Wright's images remain utterly comprehensible whereas Bay's (to me, at least) do not. That suggests that Bay's mise-en-scene is not good enough to sustain the editing speed he uses, while Wright's focus on careful mise-en-scene allows him to make faster cuts while remaining comprehensible.

  • James M. | June 25, 2014 3:44 PMReply

    Or what ALI said before me.

  • James M. | June 25, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    It's a useless term. And a pretentious one at that.

  • anonymous | June 25, 2014 12:50 PMReply

    " This contributed to the idea that long takes are somehow more respectful of film viewers, and as such require more sophisticated viewers. Over time, this created the kneejerk association that long takes are somehow smarter than shorter ones (an idea that lives on in the attacks on Michael Bay)."

    I don't think long takes are superior but imo Bay cuts so fast its hard to follow the action.

  • jack | June 30, 2014 6:22 PM

    It's not Bay's editing necessarily, it's his constant focus on cramming as much visual cotton candy into every sequence of shots as possible, and the coherence of the narrative and geography of the scene often suffer as a result. This has always been an issue for Bay, but it becomes magnified in the Transformers films. I'm not sure how those films are storyboarded, but it often feels as though ILM delivers a sequence, Bay cuts it up to change the pace and punctuate his narrative logic, and then he has them add any number of special inserts after the fact. The result is that the scene feels choppy but really it's just packed to the gills with sensory overload and nonsense.

  • A D Jameson | June 28, 2014 2:50 AM

    I'm curious about Bay. I've been looking at Transformers: Dark of the Moon, wondering what precisely causes that effect you're describing (where it's difficult to follow the action). I agree with you that the overall effect is disorienting, but I'm not entirely sure it's due to the rapid cutting. Because the cutting in Scott Pilgrim, to name one example, is much faster than in Bay, and yet it's not hard to follow the action there. So something other than rapid cutting itself must be causing the disorientation. This is precisely why I thing it's necessary to study the mise-en-scène in concert with montage.

  • Ali | June 25, 2014 9:54 AMReply

    Sounds like nobody really knows what it means, and judging on this I don't see why they should really care either. If indeed it does mean nothing more than 'shot' then it's entirely superfluous and using the phrase is nothing more than a pretentious affectation.

  • A D Jameson | June 28, 2014 2:56 AM

    I confess I can't see why the term is pretentious. It's 60+ years old, with a great deal of serious critical study behind it. Admitted, perhaps it isn't the best term; I acknowledge that in the above post. Despite that, however, I do think it's worth taking the time to figure out what the concept is trying to account for or to explain. And even if the term is eventually discarded, I'd argue that critics still need to perform the kind of analysis I've done of the snippet from Scott Pilgrim. Which is to say, critics need to be able to account for how all the various elements of filmmaking can add up to produce certain artistic effects. So even if mise-en-scène isn't the best term to describe the contributions that production design make to filmmaking, there still needs to be some term or concept or means accounting for that notion.

  • Ben.C | June 27, 2014 7:01 AM

    Mise En Scene encompasses everything that we see, it's VERY important. The problem is that it's a very old definition that was popularly discussed back when films began to be critically analysed, thus it has become a little forgotten and lost in translation. It involves the production design, the way something is shot, the distance the actor is from the camera and another actor, the colour (I could go on). I don't think it's something that is used and thought about enough today. Films are relying heavily on CGI nowadays and Big Stars, which is, on one hand, a good thing that is revolutionising filmmaking but also ruining the pure art of complex and visually interesting story telling.

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