Christian Metz and Film Theory

Born in 1931 in Beziers in the south of France, Christian Metz died tragically at the end of 1993. Metz opened the way in the 1960s to the establishment of film theory as a new intellectual discipline. Indeed, articles (written between 1964 and 1968) in Metz’s Essais sur la signification au cinema (1968) paved the way for the establishment of a department of cinema studies at the University of Vincennes (Paris VIII).

c0c547a5-c9c1-4743-b12e-e92ec16a591aAlong with other intellectuals of his generation who were inspired by the structuralist impulse (cf. Bourdieu, Derrida, Genette), Metz attended the Ecole Normale Superieure (rue d’Ulm) where he obtained an agre´gation in ‘classical letters’ (French, Greek, Latin) after also obtaining a degree in German and a maıˆtrise in ancient history. Metz’s academic training culminated in a doctorat d’e´tat in general linguistics at the Sorbonne.

Parallel to his studies, Metz was engaged in the activities of cinephile and animator of cine´-clubs. Much of his knowledge of film history, and of specific films which often serve as examples for his theoretical work, actually come from these activities. In addition, Metz did translations from German and English, specialising in works on jazz. Strangely, perhaps, contact with such works on music has failed to leave any visible mark on Metz’s film theory, music being a neglected aspect of his (and others’) film and cinema studies.

The Film Theory Vacuum and the Structuralist Intervention

To appreciate the significance of Metz’s impact, we need to recognise that before the mid-1960s little work had been done on analysing the nature of film (especially as image) or the institution of cinema (especially from the spectator’s position). In short, while there was no shortage of film criticism, almost nothing had been done on film as a medium. In response to this, and in accordance with the evolution of his theoretical framework, Metz’s work follows two broad lines of inquiry: the semiological study of film, and the psychoanalytic study of the cinema. Consideration of these two lines of inquiry will enable us to get an idea of Metz’s work as a whole.

Langage, langue and parole

Inspired by his background in linguistics (in light of his doctorat d’etat, Metz taught a course in general linguistics (1966–69) at the Ecole des HautesEtudes en Sciences Sociales before teaching film theory), Metz began to investigate film in light of Saussure’s work on language – especially in terms of the categories of (in French) langage (language in general, or a specific, technical language), langue (so-called natural language: French, English), and parole (the level of speech or discourse). Just as a Saussurian approach to literary texts took the text’s opacity (its status as a linguistic system) as its point of departure, so Metz began by taking the film’s opacity as his point of departure. Almost immediately it became clear that such an operation was by no means straightforward; for while the literary analyst had both grammar and poetry as points of departure for investigating the opacity/transparence of literary texts, no such ready-made supports existed for the investigation of film – the medium par excellence of transparency. Transparency in film, Metz saw, was intimately tied to its realism – or verisimilitude. Not that film is more real than theatre. Just the opposite. The actors on stage might constitute a real presence for the spectator by contrast with the celluloid image of film, but theatre, in relation to the drama that is enacted, lacks the power of illusion based on verisimilitude which, Metz will come to emphasise, is the mark of film as a medium. At least this is so unless the theatre audience were primarily interested in the presence per se of a great actor.

Realism and the Impression of Reality

By comparison with theatre, the real power of film derives from its capacity to create an illusion of reality. ‘Because the theatre is too real,’ says Metz, ‘theatrical fictions yield only a weak impression of reality’ (Metz 1974: 10). Paradoxically, perhaps, the ‘realism’ of film is only achieved after a threshold of ‘irreality’ has been crossed. (The neologism, ‘irreality’ (rather than ‘unreality’), is used here to refer to an imagined object, or one established by the imaginary in the psychoanalytic sense, not to the existence or non-existence of an object. See entry on Lacan.) This is tied to the requirement that the spectator suspend his or her disbelief because film as a medium – as a vehicle of representation – is an illusion in relation to the supposedly true reality beyond the representation. Of course ‘a film is only a film . . . but all the same’: this is the attitude the suspension of disbelief is founded upon.

Metz’s early essays thus reflect on the notion that film in general is a specific kind of illusion, one that is undeniably successful in seducing the spectator into suspending disbelief. Once immersed in the film world, once having accepted the principle that film is an illusion, or an ‘impression’ of reality, the image assumes all its seductive power. To present film largely from the spectator’s position, as we have done here, is, however, to move too quickly. For Metz’s early essays were less focused on film as experienced by the spectator (this focus would come later with a psychoanalytic study of cinema), and more on the way film signifies. In particular, Metz was interested in the way the film signifier, by comparison with other media – other signifiers – succeeds in presenting a narrative (diegesis), intrigue, description, drama, etc. The key point here concerns the way film as such presents a narrative structure, and not the way specific films unfold and may be interpreted in light of this unfolding. In other words, the point is not to interpret (particular) films (in which case the film signifier becomes incidental), but to analyse film as a structure of signification.

Film in general tends to defy analysis because being an ‘impression of reality’ is its defining feature. At all times in his early work, Metz keeps in view the fact that the filmic story, or subject-matter, is always realised through the image (the filmic signifier), and that the latter, although an essential element of fascination, is not what a film is about.

How then is it possible for a series of images to present a story which is, however minimally, always narrated (i.e. always presented through a diegesis)? A documentary film can resort to a voice-over in order to give the images presented in time an order and coherence. Some feature films, it is true, resort to the same device; but most do not. What is the basic syntax of the unfolding of the feature film – the film of fiction? Like Greimas’s analysis of the basic meaning structure of actions in literary texts, where an attempt is made to construct a universal syntax of actions, Metz is concerned to construct the basic structure, or syntax, of film diegesis as it is realised in images (see Greimas entry in Lechte 1994). Neither Greimas nor Metz were interested in interpreting a specific text (they are not, to repeat, working only at the level of the signified), but set out to achieve a much more daunting objective: a description of the basic syntactic order of every possible text – be it of literary or of filmic form. While it is true that some light might be thrown on to the problem of the filmic signifier by way of a detailed analysis of particular films, and while it might be possible to throw light on to the structure of the filmic signifier through a knowledge of a select number of films, Metz’s interest is primarily in film in general.

Discourse and the Subject of Enunciation

To say that a feature film – a film of fiction – unfolds by way of a narrative structure, is to say that it is a discourse, and thus, as Benveniste said, is an enunciation (e´nonciation) enacted by a subject of enunciation (sujet de l’e´nonciation) – or by, as Metz prefers, a ‘narrating agency’ (instance racontante). In effect, film images are always organised in a specific way; they are never simply given in a raw, descriptive form, although, to be sure, descriptive sequences can occur within the film diegesis. As a discourse, then, film has to be understood in terms of parole – or process – rather than langue – or system. On the other hand, Metz argues that film images correspond to statements (e´nonce´s), or speech acts, rather than to words, precisely because, unlike words, images are of indefinite number and are created by the film-maker/ speaker. Furthermore, film is not a language (langue) but an art of both connotation (unlike music or architecture) and expressivity (it uses natural objects which do not invoke a code). While ‘a concept signifies, a thing is expressive’, Metz points out (Metz 1974: 78. Translation modified).

Due to its reliance on the presentation of images in time and space, film tends to privilege the syntagmatic, or horizontal axis, over the paradigmatic, or vertical axis. Caution leads us to ask exactly why this is so. The answer is that although a page of graphic text might also appear to unfold syntagmatically, a word, as Lacan said, is a knot of (largely conventional)meaningswhich thus renders fragile the horizontal flow of language. An image (to repeat) is not a word, however. It is produced (in time and space) by the filmic discourse, a discourse that is not only realised through the direction taken by the camera, but also through the procedure of montage – the act of linking one image with another through contiguity. This is not to deny the existence of certain stereotypes (heroic cowboy) in film, nor to deny the use of symbols to create oppositions (e.g. white versus black corresponding to good versus evil). However, Metz, at least in his essays of the 1960s, points out that such paradigmatic features are extremely fragile. Another film-maker can come along and render the stereotype or symbol obsolete by changing the content of the signifying elements (black = good, for example).

The Syntagmatic Dimension of Cinema

Metz in any case chose to base his most rigorous construction of a film syntax on the syntagmatic axis of signification. This construction, which he calls la grande syntagmatique (the great syntagmatic chain), we shall now briefly summarise. The great syntagmatic chain is divided into eight autonomous segments. These are:

1 Autonomous plan: this is not a syntagm, but a syntagmatic type. It is equivalent to the exposure in isolation of a single episode of the intrigue. Inserts – e.g. a ‘non-diegetic insert’ (image outside the action of the story) – can also be equivalent to an autonomous plan.
2 Parallel syntagm: corresponds to what is often called a ‘sequence of parallel montage’. Here, no precise relationship between syntagms is evident. This is an a-chronological syntagm.
3 Accolade syntagm: syntagm of evocations. For example, Metz points to the way that eroticism is evoked in Goddard’s Une femme mariee through references to the ‘global signified’ of ‘modern love’. This syntagm is also a-chronological.
4 Descriptive syntagm: here the relation between all the elements presented successively is one of simultaneity. For example, a face, then the person to whom it belongs, then the room or office where the person is located (Metz gives the example of a view of the countryside, bit by bit). A descriptive syntagm is chronological.
5 Alternating syntagm: this syntagm corresponds to ‘alternating montage’, ‘parallel montage’, etc. Through alternation, the montage presents several series of events which are then understood to be happening simultaneously.
6 Scene: the scene properly speaking is equivalent to a continuous flow of images without any diegetic hiatus – one of the oldest cinematic constructions.
7 Sequence by episodes: discontinuity becomes a principle of construction. A linear syntagm produces a discontinuity of facts. Metz calls this ‘the sequence properly speaking’.
8 Ordinary sequence: disposition of ellipses in dispersed order exemplified by jumping moments deemed to be without interest. The point about any sequence is that it is removed from the ‘real conditions of perception’.

The Imaginary Signifier

By the mid-1970s, Metz had come to see that the semiotic approach to film tended to privilege the level of the structure of film discourse and to neglect the conditions of film reception – the position of the spectator. Furthermore, Metz realised that to account for the dynamics of the spectator’s position at the same time entailed accounting for the cinema as an institution; for the cinema would hardly exist if it were not for the spectator’s desire to ‘go to the cinema’. This shift in focus from signification to film reception coincided with his interest in a psychoanalytical (i.e. Freudian and Lacanian) study of cinema.

Metz thus employs the key Lacanian concepts of the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘symbolic’ to explain the logic of the spectator’s fascination with the image. Thus through an evocation of Lacan’s ‘Mirror Stage’, Metz sees the spectator’s captivation by the image as being equivalent to the child’s identification of itself with its image in the mirror. Most importantly, this identification is pleasurable, a factor reinforced by the cinema institution’s encouragement of the spectator. Clearly, the cinema institution has a vested interest in ensuring that the spectator experiences any individual film as a – to use Kleinian terms – ‘good object’: the object of fantasy that often forms the basis of a pleasant day-dream. A ‘bad object’, by contrast, is what the subject/spectator wants to avoid.

The spectator, then, has assimilated the positive cue associated with going to the cinema institution because he or she is part of that very institution. This is to say that the subject’s imaginary is an integral part of the same institution. Film, in effect, becomes integrated into the subject’s desire. The screen becomes equivalent to a mirror which offers an image of the subject’s own desire. Because the cinema is structured in this way, Metz shows, discourse on the cinema is often part of the cinema institution. Only rarely, therefore, is cinema discourse critical of the cinema institution.

The theorist, by contrast, attempts to take up the position of the symbolic, but this position, as Metz recognises, is precarious, precisely because the theorist’s own imaginary (read: desire) is also involved. In other words, film poses in an acute form the problem of distinguishing a judgement of what is good, or objective, from an expression of what is desirable.

In a sustained psychoanalytical study of the cinematographic signifier (that is, the materiality of film, not what it signifies), Metz attempts to compare cinema with the level of the primary process in Freud’s theory. This brings the drive aspect into consideration: the way the image fascinates, that way the viewing of film approximates dream, and that way metaphor and metonymy approximate primary process thinking based on condensation and displacement. The drive aspect implies, first of all, that there is a pleasure in perceiving what passes on the screen, and that, furthermore, due to the irreality of film, the spectator’s pleasure does not derive from an object properly speaking, but is narcissistic, that is, imaginary. The irreality of the cinematographic signifier invites a comparison between dream and the image in the mirror. Like dream, film has a hallucinatory quality which at the same time calls for interpretation; like the child’s prototypical experience with the mirror as enunciated by Lacan, film images also please. Unlike the mirror, of course, the spectator’s own body is not there on the screen. Also, the spectator is quite aware that the image is only an image. Nevertheless, argues Metz, identification is still crucial, only now the spectator ‘identifies with himself, with himself as a pure act of perception’ (Metz 1982: 49, Metz’s emphasis).

Dream and Hallucination

In the darkness of the cinema, the spectator acts out a number of Freudian scenarios, scenarios precisely deriving from the very nature of the film signifier’s irreality. Scopic passion, voyeurism and fetishism in particular come to the fore. Each of these stimulate the drives which, to a certain extent, do not need a real object for achievement of satisfaction. Voyeurism evokes the primitive scene of the child being present while its parents have intercourse. The voyeuristic position is one of passivity, entailing a gap between eye and object. The fetish is equivalent to a substitute for the penis in castration. It is a way of denying the absence of the penis (= real object) and marvelling at the cinema as a grand technique of illusion. To the point of delusion and hallucination? Metz almost implies as much at certain points, so concerned is he to emphasise the fact that spectator, qua spectator, disavows cinematic irreality.

The same might be said of Metz’s treatment of dream and cinema as we have just said of the treatment of the spectator as fetishist. The analogy is made to be too complete. For whereas dream and hallucination often lead to a confusion between reality and illusion (this is why Freud called a dream a psychosis (see Freud 1969: 29), the distinguishing mark of the cinematic signifier, it could be argued, lies precisely in its being experienced as an illusion. This is the very same kind of pleasure Lacan attributes to trompe l’oeil in painting, which, far from deceiving, gives itself for what it is, namely, as a pure appearance, as an illusion, in short. Many will feel that this aspect is not given nearly enough emphasis in Metz’s analysis. So much is this the case that one writer (Copjec 1989: 58–59) has observed that Metz has contributed to the confusion in film theory between Foucault’s panoptical subject, deluded by an all-too-powerful identification with what passes on the screen (the screen being made the equivalent of a mirror) and Lacan’s theory of the subject of the gaze for whom an illusion is always perceived as an illusion (the screen is not the equivalent of a mirror).

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Copjec, Joan (1989), ‘The orthopsychic subject: Film theory and the reception of Lacan’, October, 49 (Summer).
Freud, Sigmund (1969 [1940]), An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, London: The Hogarth Press.
Lechte, John (1994), ‘Algirdas Julien Greimas’ in Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers, London and New York: Routledge.
Metz, Christian (1974), Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (a translation of (1968) Essai sur la signification au cine´ma (1968), Volume I), trans.
Michael Taylor, New York: Oxford University Press.
—— (1983), The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton et al., Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Metz’s Major Writings
(1982 [1977]) The Imaginary Signifier Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, et al., Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
(1977) Essais semiotiques, Paris: Klincksieck.
(1976 [1973]) Essai sur la signification au cinema, Volume II, Paris: Klincksieck.
(1974a) Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor, New York: Oxford University Press.
(1974b [1971 and 1977]) Film Language and Cinema, trans. J. Donna Uniker- Sebeok, Berlin: Mouton.

Further Reading
Agis Cozyris, George (1980), Christian Metz and the Reality of Film, New York: Arno Press.
Block de Behae, L., ed. and Intro. (1996), ‘Special Issue in Honour of Christian Metz’, Semiotica, 112, 1–2. See Odin, R., ‘Christian Metz and Fiction’; Sanjines, J., ‘The Screen of Our Dreams: Christian Metz and the Horizons of the Imaginary’, and Bellour, R., ‘Cinema and Christian Metz on Words and Images’.
Copjec, Joan (1989), ‘Orthopsychic subject: Film theory and the reception of Lacan’, October, 49 (Summer).
Henderson, Brian (n.d.), Classical Film Theory: Eisenstein, Bazin, Godard, and Metz, Michigan: Ann Arbor, University Microfilms International.
Rushton, Richard (2002), ‘Cinema’s Double: Some Reflections on Metz’, Screen, 43, 2.

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  1. Really good. 5stars


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