Ridley Scott: Mise-en-scène Virtuoso

Mise-en-scène.

Ring a bell? Unless you speak French, probably not. For a good portion of my formative years I was in the same boat–a sackful of mise-en-scène could’ve dropped from the sky, landed atop my head and still I would have been none the wiser. This changed my senior year of college. Somehow, despite drinking a goodly portion of all the Goebel® and Natural Lite® distributed throughout southern Ohio in the late 1980s, I managed to complete all of my course requirements heading into my final semester, leaving me about 12 meaningless hours to kill before graduation.

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Mature beyond my 21 years, I made sure to register for classes that would enhance my career prospects: Pottery, Horseback Riding, Introductory Tennis, Geography of Wines and Science Fiction Film Studies. If you think I’m kidding, you would be wrong. Just like you were wrong about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor.

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So while some of my high-achieving b-school friends sweated their way through 400-level Finance and Accounting classes, the last couple months of college found me throwing clay, learning the proper foot-and-rein commands to coax a horse from a trot to a canter, practicing my backhand, sampling the chewy floral notes of Gewürztraminer and breaking down such SF-classics as Forbidden Planet.

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It was the last of the aforementioned slacker curriculum that introduced me to the expression mise-en-scène, which, for those who haven’t already typed it into Google Translate, literally means “staging,” a definition that becomes a bit more robust when applied to cinema:

“Mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting,” explains Wikipedia. “The mise-en-scène, along with the cinematography and editing of a film, influence the verisimilitude or believability of a film in the eyes of its viewers. The various elements of design help express a film’s vision by generating a sense of time and space, as well as setting a mood, and sometimes suggesting a character’s state of mind. Mise-en-scène also includes the composition, which consists of the positioning and movement of actors, as well as objects, in the shot.”

Of course, of all the great art forms, by far the most collaborative is cinema. Even a modestly scaled project is touched by hundreds of people representing dozens of departments. That said, make no mistake: film is a director’s medium. “Movie-making is a dictatorship,” notes Francis Ford Coppola in the documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. “Everyone in the film unit, even if they answer to a crew head, they answer directly to the director. It’s one of the dictatorial positions left in the world.”

Thus, when it comes to mise-en-scène, the director drives the vision. Which brings us to Ridley Scott, who possesses one of the most refined eyes in Hollywood, a talent that hasn’t always gone over well with the critics. Because for every classic he’s directed, films where mise-en-scène plays a crucial role in selling the material (AlienBlade RunnerGladiator), he’s also served up some serious junk (Legend, Someone to Watch Over MeBlack Rain) in which the beautiful staging is nothing more than window dressing to distract from inherently weak material. 

But when the guy’s on, he’s truly a master, a creator of worlds. As actor-producer Michael Douglas, who starred in Scott’s Black Rain, once noted, “Ridley can see things that I can’t see. When the celluloid comes back there are things there that you can’t see with the naked eye–it’s a really incredible talent.”

In 1979, Scott applied that talent to Alien, a classic of the horror/sci-fi genre that, in lesser hands, could’ve been nothing more than an exercise in gore. But Scott had more on his mind, working with such collaborators as Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger (creature design) and Derek Vanlint (cinematography) to create a world of claustrophobic corridors, creepy feminine imagery (vaginal entryways into the distressed ship; the hushed, womblike space of the Nostromo’s main computer, aptly named “Mother”; various and sundry “birth” imagery such as the crew awaking in diapers from stasis, the shocking first emergence of the alien, the full-grown alien being blown from a shuttle’s engine, etc.), not to mention a pervasive background rumble within the sound design that left one subconsciously fearing indigestion or, much worse, an alien about to burst through one’s chest.

In 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott took his mise-en-scène technique to new levels, creating an alien world right here on earth by imagining Los Angeles of 37 years hence as a mishmash of film noir tropes–low-key lighting, rain, perpetual dark–and funkily disparate design styles, including Asian, Mayan and Baroque. And while not quite a dystopia–the authorities don’t seem particularly oppressive and the yucky environment, while degraded, seems limited to the city proper (as revealed in the last shot of the theatrical release)–this Los Angeles of the future is, despite its bustling cityscapes, ultimately lonely and moody, both of which are so effectively communicated by Scott’s visuals, how he stages and arranges what appears in the frame, the mise-en-scène, in other words.

As James Clarke notes in his book, Ridley Scott, “All [Scott’s] films show an affinity to and interest in shapes and structures as important elements in telling the story and suggesting the mood of an environment.”

See for yourself:

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Blade Runner: Asian Influence

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Blade Runner: Mayan Influence

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Blade Runner: Baroque Influence

Of course, one could spill a lot of ink discussing Blade Runner in terms of mise-en-scène, but that’s not the intent of this blogpost. Instead, I’d like to spill a lot of ink in terms of mise-en-scène discussing Scott’s earliest and lesser known work, The DuellistsBut first a bit on his background:

Born 1937 in the town of South Shields in the North East of England, Scott received a Diploma in Design from the West Hartlepool College of Art and, later, a post-graduate degree from the Royal College of Art, where he had a hand in founding its film department.

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Sir Ridley Scott

In 1968, after a bit of TV work for the BBC, Scott established, with his younger brother Tony, also a fledgling director, Ridley Scott Associates (RSA), a film and commercial production company, where, for the next decade, he honed his artistic eye by directing hundreds of commercials, including the following, some of which will strike a chord for those who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s:

Then, in 1977, Scott did what all ambitious commercial directors hope to do someday: he made the jump into feature films, debuting with a period piece called The Duellists, which follows the decades-long quarrel between two Napoleonic-era French officers, the volatile Gabriel Feraud and the more stable Armand d’Hubert. Scott’s film was very well-received, even winning a major award at the 1977 Cannes Film festival, the Prix du Jury à la première oeuvre, which roughly translates into Best Debut Film.

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Interestingly, the material on which the film is based–a short story called The Duel: A Military Story by Joseph Conrad (yes, he of Heart of Darkness and Nostromo)–is itself based on real events. It seems that, back in 1794, a young French officer named Dupont was asked to deliver a message to a fellow soldier, the notoriously quick-to-anger François Fournier-Sarlovèze.

The hothead Francois Fournier-Sarloveze

Taking offense at the message’s content, Fournier-Sarlovèze challenged the innocent Dupont to a duel. For honor’s sake Dupont accepted; however, with no definitive outcome, the first skirmish led to a second, then a third, then a fourth and so on. Amazingly, when all was said and done, some 19 years later, the two men had fought 30 duels, some on foot, others on horseback, using all manner of weaponry, from pistols to swords to sabres.

Movie Synopsis

Of course, all fictional adaptations greatly expand upon the historical events on which they’re based. Scott’s film is no exception, playing out as follows:

In Strasbourg, Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) of the French 7th Hussars, fights a duel with the mayor’s nephew, who nearly dies after being run through.

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A furious Brigadier-General Treillard (Robert Stephens), responding to complaints from Strasbourg’s mayor, dispatches a young member of his staff, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of the 3rd Hussars, to gather up Feraud and place him under house arrest. Feraud, being a hothead, takes this as a personal insult, blaming the blameless d’Hubert. The situation quickly deteriorates, culminating in Feraud challenging d’Hubert to a duel with swords.

d’Hubert quickly gets the upper hand, slashing Feraud’s forearm, but isn’t able to administer the coup de grâce because he is attacked by Feraud’s housemaid. The duel remains unsettled.

Embarrassed, frustrated and sporting some nice fingernail scratches across his cheeks, d’Hubert returns to his quarters  after the debacle and asks his friend and roommate, Dr. Jacquin (Tom Conti), an army surgeon, to look in on and tend to the scoundrel Feraud’s wounds. d’Hubert then goes to debrief Treillard, who, about to get a shave, goes ballistic upon hearing what transpired:

Treillard: “You were recommended to me as a reliable, intelligent young officer. You’re a damned disgrace! You look a damned disgrace, like a damned Hottentot. Look at yourself! You will return to your regiment at once. I have no further use for you. Pending a court inquiry you’ll be confined to barracks under close arrest. Be gone.”

d’Hubert: “Sir I shall welcome the inquiry.”

Treillard: “You will, will you…Lieutenant? If you emerge from it as pure as driven snow you remain an imbecile. Get out!”

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“You look a…damned Hottentot!”

[Film snob aside: Anyone recognize the valet about to shave Treillard? It’s none other than the late Pete Postlethwaite, Academy Award nominee in 1993 for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Daniel Day Lewis’ father, Giuseppe Conlon.]

Back in their quarters, Dr. Jacquin reports to d’Hubert that a) he patched up Feraud, b) the French are now at war and, therefore, d’Hubert is no longer under house arrest and c) “Feraud intends to kill you,” this last bit not exactly what d’Hubert was hoping to hear. He asks the doctor for advice on how to extract himself from the mess:

[Film snob aside 2: Note the end of the scene, in which the doctor asks about the reason for the quarrel. d’Hubert ponders this a moment and then says, “All in all, I’m far from certain myself.” This is echoed throughout the movie, the two men, as the years and duels pass, becoming more and more uncertain as to the reason why they’re doing it, a nice commentary on the futility and nonsense of warfare based on “honor.”]

Due to the state of war (and the doctor’s advice), Feraud and d’Hubert don’t run into each other for another six months. When they do, Feraud quickly challenges the less-than-enthusiastic d’Hubert to another duel, which ends in the latter being seriously wounded. 

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Le deuxième duel!

Both Feraud and d’Hubert “seconds” (a term for someone assisting/representing a combatant in a duel) implore the men to consider that honor has been served–both have inflicted some injury upon the other and so now it’s time to move on. d’Hubert agrees, Feraud does not, barking: “Until next time, d’Hubert!”

Once recovered from his injury, d’Huber agrees to a third duel, this with heavy sabres. Again, no victor is crowned, both men too exhausted and battered to finish.

d’Huber soon learns from Treillard that, despite the Brigadier-General’s misgivings–he can’t understand why such a promising officer would continue dueling a fool like Feraud–he has been promoted to captain, which means that, for the time being at least, the lesser-ranked Feraud can’t challenge him to any more duels.

Years pass. While serving in Lübeckd’Huber discovers that Feraud’s 7th Hussars have arrived in the city, too, and, worse, his nemesis is now also a captain. d’Huber has no interest in fighting another duel and so plans to stay out of sight until his planned promotion, to major, in two weeks time. It isn’t to be, however; spotted by Feraud’s second, d’Huber is drawn into another duel, this to be fought on horseback. The terrified d’Huber not only survives but inflicts a nasty cut across Feraud’s forehead, the profuse bleeding rendering the other man unable to continue. 

[Film snob aside 3: This is a masterly structured and cut sequence, quite a coup for a first-time director, which plays out as such: accompanied by ominous, slightly dissonant music, the men on horseback draw their swords, Feraud with steady hand, d’Huber looking as though he’s had 25 cups of coffee. The men signal they’re ready. d’Huber shakes like a leaf–he knows he’s unlikely to survive the encounter. The men begin to ride towards each other, gathering speed. But then Scott does something interesting: instead of seeing the duel straight through, he throws in a series of quick cuts to illustrate d’Huber’s state of mind, what looks to be abject terror and last-minute regret that he’s been so foolish as to continue to engage in this madness, the first showing Feraud celebrating his wounding of d’Huber in their second duel, then back to d’Huber shaking like a leaf on horseback before spurring his horse, then to the men gaining speed towards each other, then to other images of past violent swordplay with Feraud, then to d’Huber’s mistress, Laura (Diana Quick), who thinks him a fool to worry about his “honor,” then, suddenly, the duel is over–one of the rider’s hats flies off, a bloodied saber is wiped clean. Who’s wounded? Or possibly dead? Anyway, it’s one thing to explain it, but quite another to see the complicated sequence play out. So see it, damn you!]

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Le quatrième duel!

The next time the pair chance upon each other is in 1812, during the French Army’s disastrous retreat from Moscow. Starving and borderline hypothermic, they still find the energy to resume their duel, this time with pistols. Before they can fire a shot, however, a Cossack appears with some comrades. Instead of using the guns on each other, d’Hubert and Feraud expend their bullets killing the enemy.

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Le cinquième duel interrompu!

The movie shifts to peacetime. With Napoleon’s exile to Elba, d’Hubert has been promoted to a brigadier-general. Recovering from a leg wound at his sister’s home in Tours, he’s introduced to Adele (Cristina Raines). The two fall in love and are married.

[Film snob aside 4: Take a closer look at the clip above, keeping your eye on the misbehaving horses. On the surface it looks like one of those magically fortuitous moments that can happen from time to time on a movie set. After all, it’s not like you can direct a pair of horses to mirror the human kiss taking place in the foreground. But that’s exactly what happens and it enhances the beauty of the scene greatly. However, there’s an untold story here, shared by Scott in the Blu-ray release. At about the :35 mark the actress begins to giggle, which, in the context of the scene, isn’t so unexpected–she’s in love, she’s giddy at the prospect of a proposal and she’s having a bit of fun with d’Hubert’s discomfort. The real reason for her laughter, however, was that the stallion on the left, lusting after the mare on the right, began sprouting a horse-size erection. Scott goes on to note that, because he was operating the camera himself (something he’s fond of doing because of his gift for composition), he was able to keep the actors moving through the scene despite the distraction, which led, of course, to that great moment when the horses “kiss.”]

Napoleon attempts to return from exile and is finally defeated at Waterloo. Whereas d’Hubert is smart enough to know which way the wind blows and, thus, throws his lot in with the army of Louis XVIIIFeraud, being an ardent Bonapartist, is arrested for his part in the Hundred Daysd’Hubert soon learns that his nemesis is to be executed. Instead of relishing this, d’Hubert decides to ask the Minister of Police Joseph Fouché (Albert Finney) to commute the sentence. Fouché relents under the agreement that Feraud will have to live the remainder of his life in a certain province under police supervision. d’Hubert asks that it not be revealed he was the one who saved Feraud’s life. Which leads to this great line by Finney: “General Feraud alive or dead isn’t worth a moment’s gossip.”

Word gets back to the exiled Feraud that d’Hubert is alive and well and now an important officer in the new French Army. Infuriated, he has some men loyal to him sneak out of the province to communicate to d’Hubert that he is once again challenged to a duel. d’Hubert accepts, naming the place (the ruins of a château) and the weapons (pistols).

As for this final duel, you’ll have to watch the movie to discover the outcome. I will reveal this, though: the movie’s resolution and final few images are among my all-time favorites.

The Duellists & Mise-en-scène

Scott has never been a big mover of the camera. Like a painter (which isn’t that far from his original training as a graphic artist), his passion is composition, what appears within the frame, which, in The Duellists, has an aspect ratio of 1:85:1. Pretty much every damn image in The Duellists is a tutorial on mise-en-scène. Remember the Wikipedia’s definition? “Mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. [It] influences the verisimilitude or believability of a film in the eyes of its viewers. [It] helps express a film’s vision by generating a sense of time and space, as well as setting a mood, and sometimes suggesting a character’s state of mind.”

Let’s take a look at the duel on horseback. The scene takes place among a tight row of leafless birches:

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d’Hubert is stuck within this claustrophobic confinement of trees until he sees this nasty thing through, something he may not survive. Escape isn’t an option–he’s imprisoned by his sense of “honor.” The setting (and how Scott places the actors and horses within), effectively and wordlessly communicates d’Hubert’s terror, his state of mind. 

Later, Scott shows us the misery of the French army’s retreat from Russia, a winter full of dark, hopeless skies, inadequate fires, snow-covered, hypothermic men, hapless attempts at shelter. Just looking at Scott’s imagery has one reaching for a blanket.

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Of course, when you’re going to make a movie set in the early 1800s, you better make sure the mise-en-scène helps the audience wrap their brains around this time period. Like in so many of his other movies, Scott does this in spades–as mentioned earlier, he’s a genius in creating worlds–in this case using props, costumes, set dressing and lighting to authentically communicate life in a time where candles and sunlight were the only sources of light, the streets were dirty, the pubs were smoky and loud, the aristocracy lived in luxury, but even the most fortunate had a mice problem:

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I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because I want you to have more time to buy/rent the movie.

Final Thoughts

Like I mentioned earlier, Scott is not above using stylized, gorgeous imagery to cover unseemly holes in some of his weaker movies. But when the material is strong, as it is in The Duellists, the imagery he imagines and realizes with his crack team of collaborators is just as important as any other aspect of the production in selling the story. In lesser hands The Duellists probably wouldn’t be the classic that it surely is.

Some might quibble over Keitel’s and Carradine’s American accents–Keitel sounds like he just got off the boat from Brooklyn–but I’d rather them just talk than try to convince me of an English accent, which a) I know they don’t have and b) can so often blow up in an actor’s face (see Costner, Kevin, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for proof). Furthermore, the supporting actors are uniformly terrific, an embarrassment of riches from Britain, such heavyweights as Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti, Diana Quick, Alan Webb and Gay Hamilton.

Finally, for those Francophiles out there, the movie was filmed in and around the town of Sarlat and the Dordogne River, the former boasting 14th century incredible architecture, the latter breathtaking vistas.

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Sarlat-la-Canéda

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The Dordogne River

Even if the movie sucked I could watch it over and over for just that.

Don’t be lame; check it out. San Andreas with The Rock can wait.

 

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