What do artsy film critics mean by “mise-en-scene”?

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Dear Cecil: This has been bugging me for years and now I’ve finally run out of patience. If you don’t tell me the answer I’ll go nuts and start voting for Republicans. Can you tell this ignorant slut who still calls films “movies” just what in the world is a “mise-en-scene”? This will make film criticism a trifle less impenetrable and make me more confident at parties that feature white wine. C.L.A., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Don’t fret about it, honey. The only guy I ever knew who understood what mise-en-scene meant also used to use the word “albeit” in casual conversation. Talk about your alien beings.

Originally a theatrical term meaning a stage setting (literally, “putting-in-scene”), mise-en-scene is often loosely translated as “direction,” which unfortunately tends to convey the purely mechanical notion of blocking out the actors’ movements so they don’t get in each other’s way. In its most significant sense, mise-en-scene refers to everything under the control of the director, that is, the aggregate effect created by art direction, placement and movement of camera and actors, lighting, and other visual elements in a given scene. In other words, mise-en-scene is what the director does. By extension, but somewhat more vaguely, mise-en-scene can refer to the dominant visual features of a film or film genre, e.g., the typically cramped, somber mise-en-scene of the film noir.

Mise-en-scene, according to some theorists, is the principal vehicle by which a film’s “meaning,” such as it is, is conveyed, and as such is supposedly imposed on the film by its director, who may also call him/herself a metteur-en-scene, “putter-in-scene.” (Which is why this is a favorite term of adherents of the “auteur” school of film criticism, who emphasizes the director’s importance.) One may refer to a director’s mise-en-scene in the sense of his/her characteristic visual style, such as Fritz Lang’s use of harsh lighting and sharp angles. Or Walt Disney’s use of primary colors and four-fingered rodents. Such are the trademarks of genius.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.