A Plea for Mise en Esprit

Curator's Note

Sometimes for an instant, sometimes for a lengthy sequence, sometimes for their entirety, films toy with our capacity to mentally visualize what remains invisible onscreen. By referring, in ingenious ways, to absent characters, spaces, and actions, a film can thrust us centrifugally beyond the film frame into an imaginary elsewhere that remains unseen.[1] All of a sudden, the weight of what is happening shifts: from hic-et-nunc (here-and-now) to illic-et-nunc (there-and-now) or even illic-et-tunc (there-and-then). Simultaneously omitting and suggesting, the film thus allows, begs, even compels us to give shape to what is not quite there. By drawing on our sensory imagination, we need to conjure up a visualized world that is complementary to the visual world on the screen.[2]

No doubt, sensory imagination is a capacity that varies between viewers: some are able to imagine much more vividly than others; and those suffering from a rare clinical syndrome called ‘aphantasia’ don’t imagine at all. However, viewers who do visually imagine—if only mildly—feel their film experience changing. What happens is a shift in reception to a less dominant mode: a stronger emphasis on listening to the detriment of seeing and a heightened focus on imagining at the cost of perceiving. One might also say we undergo an experience of ‘mental superimposition’ or ‘mental double-exposure’: our visual perception of the film is enriched and, if you will, overlaid with what’s been visualized with sensory imagination’s help. But what to call this phenomenon when, provoked by evocative aesthetics, our embodied mind complements mentally what the film affords us suggestively? Perhaps the term mise en esprit might do? After all, the film seems to put something in our mind.[3]

A skeptic might wonder why I propose adding yet another term starting with ‘mise en’ to the long list that already contains mise en cadre, mise en abyme, mise en phase, mise en image, mise en plan, mise en pli, etc. Clearly, one incentive is to offer a companion term to mise en scène. While in recent years, this venerable concept has received a fair share of renewed attention in English-, French-, and German-speaking film scholarship, there are reasons to amend it—not least because it doesn’t cover what the term mise en esprit provides.[4] Just look at how John Gibbs defines mise en scène as comprising “the contents of the frame and the way that they are organized.” Similarly, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe it as “the director’s control over what appears in the film frame. […] In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the event for the camera.”[5] In both cases, we find a reference to what appears within the frame and how it is organized and staged. But what about characters, spaces, and actions absent onscreen that a film stages via vivid suggestions and that viewers have to summon themselves visually? That’s where the term ‘mise en esprit’ comes in handy, as it refers to both what appears visualized in imagination and how filmmakers organize and stage their audiovisual material in evocative ways.

To contrast the two terms in a pronounced fashion: What a metteur en scène presents directly and concretely in front of and for the camera and thus offers for audiovisual perception in onscreen space, a metteur en esprit leaves out and, at the same time, alludes to so the viewer’s titillated sensory imagination supplements audiovisual perception. Put even more succinctly, the mise en scène is staged to be perceived; the mise en esprit is staged to be imagined.

As a companion term, mise en esprit has yet another advantage: like mise-en-scène analysis, it allows us to look at artistic decisions and styles. If an analysis of the mise en scène combines a close look at what is staged with how it is presented to us, then an analysis of the mise en esprit needs to look into what we imagine alongside how we are made to imagine it. Of course, because the ‘what’ of the mise en esprit (the contents of our sensory imagination) is a mental construct that builds on and depends on the ‘how’ of the mise en esprit (the way filmmakers stage it), this is also where we encounter a major difference. Since the mentally visualized content of the mise en esprit is, by definition, invisible and imagined differently by each viewer, it cannot be pointed at and reproduced in the same way as the mise en scène. Our main access to it would be via a viewer’s ekphrastic and introspective description.

Nothing discussed so far renders ‘mise en scène’ a superfluous term, though. Except for rare cases of a blank screen, the mise en esprit is always intertwined with the mise en scène—which is of course what distinguishes a film from a radio play or a narrative podcast. Even in blank-screen films like Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the monochromatic mise en scène (if you want to speak of a mise en scène in Blue’s case at all) influences and, quite literally, colors how we imagine the film’s richly furnished mise en esprit. But analyzing this interplay is precisely the task of a proper mise-en-esprit criticism. Just as we can look closely at mise-en-scène components such as setting, lighting, costume/make-up, and staging, we can analyze how filmmakers arrive at a well-equipped mise en esprit.

Here we can learn a great deal from research on radio plays, narrative podcasts, and sound studies more generally. But we can also profit from literary studies, cognitive poetics, and other fields that look into the evocative force of language. Just think of the use of suggestive verbalizations of characters who evoke through monologues or dialogues something not shown.[6] Not least, psychological and neuroscientific studies on imagination may provide insights worth considering. In a previous article in which I first championed the term ‘mise en esprit,’ I looked at strategies such as suggestive verbalizations, sound effects, and the acousmatic voice in order to analyze how so-called ‘one-character films’ like Den Skyldige/The Guilty (2018), Buried (2010) or Locke (2013) stage in our minds what remains absent onscreen.[7]

But there is certainly more to explore. To analyze the power of mise-en-esprit filmmaking, we have to acknowledge that films can send viewers centrifugally into various temporal directions: they can catapult us not only into a present elsewhere, but also, via messenger reports or recorded messages, into the past or, via character speeches and prophecies, into the future. Nor should we overlook that the degree of evocativeness can vary substantially between films and within a film. And just as the mise en scène can be densely packed or rarefied, the mise en esprit can be tangible or vague.

Thus, ever so slowly, mise en esprit, while first and foremost a descriptive concept, has also emerged as an evaluative term that can be used in emphatic ways: ‘Gustav Möller’s Den Skyldige is mise-en-esprit filmmaking at its best!’ Or: ‘Isn’t the early scene in Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), in which a suicide occurs in off-screen space, a potent example of how to tie a film’s mise en esprit convincingly to its overall meaning?’ Champions of mise-en-scène criticism might not be the only ones who discover here yet another characteristic that binds together the two terms ‘mise en scène’ and ‘mise en esprit.’


[1] See, for instance, Sarah Cooper: Film and the Imagined Image. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019. Compare also my own work on sensory imagination: Julian Hanich: “Intimidating Imaginations: A Phenomenology of Suggested Horror.” in Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear. New York: Routledge, 2010 and “Omission, Suggestion, Completion: Film and the Imagination of the Spectator.” In: Screening the Past. Vol. 43, 2018. http://www.screeningthepast.com/issue-43-dossier-materialising-absence-in-film-and-media/omission-suggestion-completion-film-and-the-imagination-of-the-spectator/ (last accessed: 6 March 2023).

[2] I restrict myself to mentally visualizing. But a similar argument could be made—mutatis mutandis—for the other senses, especially the sense of hearing.

[3] See also Julian Hanich: “Mise en Esprit: One-Character Films and the Evocation of Sensory Imagination.” In: Paragraph. Vol. 43, No.3, 2020.

[4] Jacques Aumont: Le Cinéma et la Mise en Scène. 2nd Edition. Paris: A. Colin, 2015. Adrian Martin: “Turn the Page: From Mise en scène to Dispositif,” in: Screening the Past 31/2011. http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/07/turn-the-page-from-mise-en-scene.... Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style. From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Frank Kessler, Mise en scène. Montréal: Caboose, 2014. Guido Kirsten: “Mise en Scène.” In Malte Hagener, Volker Pantenburg (eds.): Handbuch Filmanalyse. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017. Ivo Ritzer: Medialität der Mise-en-scène: Zur Archäologie telekinematischer Räume. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017.

[5] John Gibbs: Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower, 2002. p. 5. David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson: Film Art. An Introduction. Eighth Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. p. 112 (original emphasis).

[6] See Julian Hanich: “Suggestive Verbalizations in Film: On Character Speech and Sensory Imagination.” In: New Review of Film and Television Studies. Vol. 20, No. 2, 2022 (the open-access version can be downloaded here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/17400309.2022.2033067?needAccess=true&role=button). See also Julian Hanich/Sanna McGregor: “A Companion Glossary for ‘Suggestive Verbalizations in Film.’” https://nrftsjournal.org/a-companion-glossary-for-suggestive-verbalizations/ (last accessed: 6 March 2023).

[7] Hanich (2020).

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