Out of all the intoxicating phrases that emerge from the study of film, my personal favourite is mise-en-scène, translated from French to mean: what is in the frame.
The phrase conjures up the splendour of the audio-visual palettes that help establish film worlds, whether they be brooding gothic horrors, deceptive melodramas, or the slick sheen of utopian space operas. If a film has worked its magic on you it will likely be through the delightful subtleties and provocations of its mise-en-scène.
At the descriptive level when we are thinking about what constitutes a film’s mise-en-scène we are referring to the following related and interdependent elements:
Production design, including sets, décor, props and costumes
Colour, which is found in both the production design and lighting
Lighting and shadow, and the way they illuminate or fall across objects, spaces, characters
Figure expression and movement, defined as behaviour and movement in the scene
Actors’ performance, including their clothes, hair, make-up, and star image
Framing, including camera position, depth of field, aspect ratio; height and angle (but not movement)
- Diegetic sound or the sound that originates from within the scene
If we take just lighting and colour as two foundational elements of mise-en-scène we will begin to quickly see the way a film’s diegetic world is powerfully brought to life.
Lighting determines what is illuminated and what is left in shadow and as such can create a whole set of enigmas and puzzles. The quality of light determines whether the scene is filled with bold, striking shadows, or is diffuse and hazy. Each lighting effect is expressive and shapes the mood and movement of the entire sequence.
Take the “Rose Petal Dream Sequence” (above) from American Beauty (1999). Lester’s face is warmly illuminated so that he glows as he provocatively imagines Angela, his daughter’s friend, bathing in a bath of red roses. It as if his bed is elevated, his pillow a pedestal, and his dreaming enchanted by his lustful imagination.
His sleeping wife is turned the other way, against him, and seems to be lit in a similar away but this confirms their disconnectedness – she is dreaming in her own land far, far away.
Angela is more powerfully illuminated as the high-key light ignites the blonde in her hair, and falls across her naked skin, so she is both rendered seductress and (a falling, like the red roses) angel – the ultimate male fantasy.
Low-key lighting creates an environment of shadowy areas that appear foreboding and that invites one to peer into the murky corners of the frame. If the director wants lighting to create a more dramatic or bold effect then sidelighting and backlighting is used, where only the silhouette is rendered visible to the naked eye, see The Big Combo (1955) above.
Film noir is a genre often recognised by its lighting techniques. One finds a high contrast image achieved by the deployment of night–for-night shooting. Chiaroscuro “low key lighting” places important objects, characters, emotions, in shadow and (partial) darkness.
The materials of the mise-en-scène, whether it be furniture, clothes, ornaments, faces are often violently divided by vertical and horizontal shafts of light. Film noir lighting thus renders not only characters but material space schizophrenic and duplicitous, particularly around the figure of the femme fatale.
At the end of The Maltese Falcon (1941), the murderous Brigit is led to an elevator where she stands motionless, staring back at the camera, centre frame. Her eyes are still wet from the crocodile tears she has just wept, her fur coat, a sign of her vanity and narcissim, still hangs on her shoulders. As she enters the lift, the metal doors close on her, a symbol that she is now trapped and on the way to prison.
A vertical shaft of light is employed which produces a forked shadow down her middle, dividing her face and body, confirming her duplicitous, cheating, scheming nature.
The entire mise-en-scène will in effect bring colour sources to a scene but the visual composition will be carefully arranged. We can talk of a film’s palette, or its painterly nature. Certain colours may be repeated or contrasted to carry symbolic and emotional meaning, and to foreshadow narrative events. A colour motif can also define/ follow a character.
We know, for example, that in the West red is a symbol for danger, aggression, passion and sexuality. Red ochre has always suggested life and warmth, vitality, and strength.
In Don’t Look Now (1973), red is used in all these contrasting ways, unsettling the narrative, creating a series of unexplained enigmas for the viewer. Right throughout the film red is found on slides, church windows, dresses, insignia, boats, and furniture.
The film begins with a death of a small girl, Christine Baxter, in a pond at her country home. Wearing a red Macintosh coat as she drowns, it becomes the symbol of loss and trauma throughout. However, the flashes and insights that her father, John Baxter, receives are read as clairvoyance rather than an impending further catastrophe that will soon follow.
Red is thus not only employed symbolically but as a way to undermine the film’s narrative structure and the way we trust or don’t trust John’s visions. Set largely in Venice in winter, the gothic interiors and exteriors further imbue a menacing presence so that death haunts the entire mise-en-scène.
It is a film’s entire mise-en-scène where meaning takes proper root. Take a post-war Hollywood musical such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) where you’ll find a high intensity mise-en-scène of primary colours, high-key lighting, open spaces, easy movement, soft textures, happy faces, romantic coupling, and song and dance routines that carried forward the hope and optimism of the period in which they were made. These were utopian films that promised a way forward for every American.
By contrast, in the underwold films of Martin Scorsese you will find that the mise-en-scène conjures up complex character and urban relations. Alienated, lonesome drifters such as Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976) exist in spaces of transition and disintegration.
Travis is isolated and confused by the flimsy and corrupt nature of contemporary life. His taxi becomes his home space but it cruises through streets and ghettos of hell. His own apartment is sparsely decorated, empty of familial signifiers, and his descent into vigilantism emerges from a perverse mix of hate and love.
Ultimately, a film’s mise-en-scène achieves not only the ability to express to an audience the mood, drama, and likely events of a scene or sequence, but its affecting intensity, its mode of feeling, and to invite the viewer to feel deeply too.
A rich and complex mise-en-scène activates the viewers’ entire sensorium so that they imagine they feel, touch, breathe, hear, and taste the film world first-hand. This is the power and beauty of my favourite film phrase – mise-en-scène.
Explainer: production design