Essential reading for anyone who wishes to follow, over the course of more than a century, the tribulations of a literally protean concept, from the world of theatre (whence the term derives) to that of the digital by way of the French New Wave and its auteur theories.
— André Gaudreault, Université de Montréal

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Mise en scène

Frank Kessler (Utrecht University)

The Belgian film critic Dirk Lauwaert once proclaimed that mise en scène is the “most beautiful word” when talking about cinema. In this volume Frank Kessler charts the term’s use from its origins in theatre circles in the 19th century through to the auteur theories found in French film criticism of the 1950s and 60s up to the present day and the place of mise en scène in the contemporary digital cinematic landscape. Mise en scène, when understood as one of the most fundamental techniques of filmmaking, has always been a part of film history, from Georges Méliès’s “artificially arranged scenes” to contemporary block busters or art house movies. But the practices to which the term refers have changed over time, and recent developments have shown that the complex interplay between space, actors and camera is also dependent upon technological constraints. Mise en scène disentangles the various ways in which mise en scène appears in writings about film, with regard to its descriptive scope as well as its strategic functions. It also looks at the different practices of mise en scène and the way in which these are conceptualised. Kessler’s three-pronged historical, theoretical and practical approach fills a major gap in the existing literature on cinematic mise en scène.

The French expression “mise en scène” is synonymous with the English “staging”, as it includes all the aspects that are involved when a play is being “put on stage”. So while the cultural hierarchies in nineteenth-century France may have privileged text and declamation over all the other elements of a play, the mere scope of what mise en scène contributes to a theatrical performance shows that the hierarchical relations could easily be reversed. Once the staging of a play came to be considered an interpretation of the text rather than a simple reproduction of the written work, it was mise en scène itself that in fact became the pre-eminent means for artistic creation. Consequently, Patrice Pavis not only adds another function of mise en scène to the ones listed by Arthur Pougin—that of ‘highlighting the meaning’ of the play—but also states that the emergence of mise en scène and the evolution of its status at the end of the nineteenth century resulted in theatre being established as an autonomous art form. As a result, the author of the text could no longer be considered the sole creator of a theatrical work of art. When Berlin audiences flocked to see Max Reinhardt’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1905, it was because of his spectacular mise en scène rather than to see Shakespeare’s play.

In the case of theatre, the definition of mise en scène thus hovers between two extremes. At the same time, this reflects a historical shift concerning theatre’s status as an art form: on the one hand mise en scène is a purely technical and descriptive term that refers to setting up and arranging whatever is necessary to present the text of a play on stage, while on the other hand it is a concept, which designates the very foundation of theatre as an art form—mise en scène is what transforms a written text into theatre, in the most expressive sense of the term. All things considered, this holds equally true for cinema.

— Frank Kessler
December 2014, 60 pp., 5.5” x 8.5”. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-9811914-8-5, $7 + $10 in stores.
Frank Kessler is professor of media history at Utrecht University, The Netherlands, and one of the founders and editors of KINtop: Jahrbuch zur Erforschung des frühen Films. He is a past president of Domitor, an international association for research on early cinema. His research mainly concerns the period of the emergence of cinema, exploring various aspects of early cinema, especially the genre of féeries, early non-fiction film and acting styles.