The Language of Film:
Mise-en-scene—a French term roughly translated as “what is put into the scene” (put before a camera), refers to all those properties of a cinematic image that exists independently of camera position, camera movement, and editing. Mise-en-scene includes: lighting, costumes, sets, the quality of the acting, and other shapes and characters in the scene.
Analyze mise-en-scene by asking the following questions:
1. Do the objects and props in the setting, whether natural ones (like rivers and trees) or artificial ones (like paintings and buildings), have a special significance that relates to the characters or story? Do they carry symbolic or metaphorical freight?
2. Does the arrangement of objects, props, and characters within that setting have some significance? (For example, are they crowded together? Do inanimate objects seem to have a life?
Discussion: In 25th Hour, Lee frequently arranges “props,” such as the fence in the clip below, to create the appearance of Monty behind bars. To what effect? How do such images underscore the film's prominent themes and conflicts?
The clip below is from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Satine, a courtesan and entertainer, is lowered from above a crowd of male spectators as she sings “Sparkling Diamonds.” The lighting, camera angle (emphasizing distance), the colors and costume, as well as everything in the background tell a story about Satine before we are even introduced officially to her character. What does this image suggest about Satine, her psychological state of mind and internal conflicts?
Sometimes the props and visual devices are explicitly symbolic and metaphorical, as in these clips from James Cameron Titanic and Baz Luhrmann Moulin Rouge. Notice the mirror, projecting a dual image of the main characters Rose and Satine. In what sense do the images metaphorically landscape the women's internal conflicts—with class, gender, identity—or their sense of restriction and confinement?
In any movie, it is the camera that eventually films a mise-en-scene: when you watch a movie, you see not only the setting, actors, and lighting but all of these elements as they are recorded and then projected. The composition of a scene through the film image is what distinguishes film from drama.
Seemingly “insignificant” details in the mise-en-scene often provide the most important clues, relaying a film’s themes, conflicts, or even a character’s state of mind. What can we conclude about Malcolm’s evolution—psychologically and socially—based upon his change of clothing in the clips below?
Refer to Lindsey Willis’s paragraph on the use of colors in the mise-en-scene to convey theme in Malcolm X.
See also Jamie Scribner’s essay, “You Complete Me,” for an excellent discussion on the use of mise-en-scene in Lee's 25th Hour.