Film Language by Christian Metz
Semiology’s Radical Possibilities

by Constance Penley

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 18-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Film Language by Christian Metz, tr. Michael Taylor. Oxford University Press, 1974. $10.95 (cloth).

Christian Metz is the leading film theoretician in France. The translation of his Essais sur la signification au cinéma (Vol. 1, 1967) has long been awaited by radical critics in this country looking to semiology as a tool for understanding the relationship between ideology and aesthetic expression. Semiology is the science of signifying practice. That is, the theory of the production of meaning in texts. As such, it is not just a formalistic description of the physica1 material of the text. It concerns itself with the status of the text as a discourse. A sender emits a message which is understood by the receiver because both the organization and reception of the message is governed by a system of socially conventionalized rules (even at the level of the unconscious). Semiotic study attempts an analysis in which there is no separation of the specialized codes of a particular medium and the cultural codes which are inscribed in and mediated by it. Thus, some radical film critics find in semiology a way to think and talk about ideology without “extracting” it from its complex interaction with other codes in the film text.

I would like to discuss Film Language in relation to its possible usefulness for this activity.

Film Language represents essays from the early stages of Metz’ attempt to found a cinesemiotics. His later work has somewhat superseded this book. Language and Cinema , recently translated and published by Mouton, Belgium, is mostly a recanting of this earlier work. However, Film Language will undoubtedly be the most available and widely read, at least until his later work is also taken up by U.S. publishers. It is easy to take critical potshots at this book; it was a beginning book, opening a new field of inquiry. Cinéthique has already done an extensive analysis of the book and made many important criticisms concerning the relationship of Metz’ theory to his bourgeois ideology.(1) However, it might be more fruitful to try to see what kind of space the book opens up for us in terms of thinking about aesthetics/ideology/cinema   and to look at its mistakes as theoretical pitfalls to be avoided. For, even though Metz’ notion of a cinesemiotics and of what constitutes a cinematic code is not yet fully formulated in this book and is there even very misleading, it can still be helpful as a beginning for thinking about films in terms of a culturally and ideologically determined heterogeneity of codes rather than as original and unique expressions of certain “human” themes.

Also, U.S. film critics have for the most part eschewed theoretical models for film analysis, and this book will be a valuable demonstration of the necessity for a more “scientific” approach.

In Film Language Metz’ cinesemiotics leans heavily on linguistic models. The enterprise of semiotics arose out of the methods of structural linguistics, formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early part of the century. Also linguistics has become one of the most rigorous and fruitful sciences of this century. Metz ultimately discards a theoretical model for film based on verbal language, although he still believes that cinesemiotics can learn much from linguistics. His primary reason for rejecting rigid analogies to language is based on his claim that the image, unlike the word, is not a discrete unit that can be reduced into smaller basic units and analyzed. In a spate of neo-Bazinism, Metz says, “... the image discourse is an open system, and it is not easily codified, with its non-discrete basic units (the images), its intelligibility (which is too natural), its lack of distance between the significate and the signifier.”

Metz sees the image as being too close an analog of the thing in the real world; it is not an indication of the thing but the actual “pseudo-presence of the thing.” The mechanical nature of the basic filmic operation (photographic and phonographic duplication) has the consequence of integrating into the final product “chunks of signification whose internal structure remains afilmic, and which are governed mainly by cultural paradigms.”

This mimetic notion of the image is the opposite of that held by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiologist whom Metz cites as responsible for many of his later changes. Eco posited the rather startling idea that the iconic (photographic) image is, like the verbal sign, “completely arbitrary, conventional and unmotivated.”(2) He points out that there are so many transformations involved from the object to the representation of the object that the image has none of the properties of the object represented, but that, at most, the iconic sign reproduces some of the conditions of perception. Eco analyzes the codes of the image which allow us to perceive and understand it: perceptual codes, codes of recognition, of transmission, iconic, iconographic, rhetorical, stylistic, unconscious, etc..

The difference between Metz’ notion of visual representation and that of Eco’s is a very important one: since, for Metz, there is little distinction between “inside” the film and “outside” the film, an analysis of the ways that a given ideology in the film might be mediated through the codes of visual representation is precluded. Metz’ concept of visual representation would allow ideology to be thought of as something existing only at the level of the content and easily extracted from the film. The idea that ideology cannot be separated from the cinematic codes which mediate, transform, and deform it, can be used to argue against the political efficacy of “popular radical” films like Costa-Gravas’ STATE OF SIEGE. This film has a ’correct” ideology at the level of content but its message must pass through the sieve of bourgeois codes of representation—causal linear narrative, lenses that preserve Renaissance perspective, seemingly unbroken, diegetic reality, etc.—which for the most part deflect or even negate the radical intention of the film.

As can be seen, a lengthy analysis needs to be made of all the problems involved in thinking of the filmic image as “natural”. For natural, read: unsimulated, unconstructed by any force/determination—just “there.”

Metz, considering photographic images too “natural” to be subjected to analysis, looks to larger units in the film text and decides that the essence of cinema and the units most amenable to study are the large units of the narrative. He says there is a “methodological urgency that favors... the study of the narrative film.” He attempts to ground this in a rather ideologically biased version of film history. He goes back to the Lumière brothers’ invention of the camera in 1895 and states that of all the possibilities that cinema could have evolved into (e.g. a means of preserving records, use in research and teaching, a new form of journalism, a way to keep the memory of dead loved ones, etc.), it evolved into a “machine for telling stories... it was a historical and social fact, a fact of civilization..,” and because of this “fact,” the “inner semiological mechanism” of cinema became narrativity.

This is one of those arguments that goes, “It is because it is.” Metz makes it sound as if it were a completely “natural” occurrence that cinema should have become a story telling medium; his ideology prevents him from looking for external determinants. David Curtis in Experimental Cinema: A Fifty Year Evolution (3) has a different story to tell about the “naturalness” of cinema’s evolution into that of the fictional narrative shown in a theatrical format:

“While the full resources of the still-photography industry were put behind developing cheap cameras for amateur use, in cinematography the early patent holders saw film’s greatest potential as a theatrical art form, and did their best to centralize and limit production to an appropriate theatrical format. In 1909, Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Méliès and Klein (as the Motion Picture Patents Company) collectively tried to enforce the world-wide recognition of their sole license on all movie production and exhibition equipment. Though this attempted monopoly failed, it stimulated the growth of large ’invulnerable’ companies, which eventually led to the adoption of block booking and the circuit release of films through chains of cinemas. Perhaps the relative expense of movie making made this kind of development inevitable, though the combined camera/ printer/ projector used by Lumière’s cameramen suggested at least one alternative line) of development.”

Annette Michelson, discussing earlier film theoreticians such as Eisenstein and Bazin, pointed out the tendency to take an individual preference for a certain kind of film such as rapid montage or deep focus photography and the long take, construct a theory out of it, and eventually elevate it into an ontology.(4) Christian Metz likes feature-length, fictional, narrative, dramatic films; everything else goes into the set of not-cinema. In order to insure that any films that his theoretical grid cannot account for are dismissed from consideration, he offers rabid diatribes against documentary, cinema verité and avant-garde experimental filmmaking. He is particularly scornful of attempts at making anti-narrative or anti-spectacle films and manages to co-opt these by claiming, “The modern film is more narrative, and more satisfyingly so, and that the main contribution of the new cinema is to have enriched the filmic narrative.”

Metz says, “The good films of the cinema direct, (what he calls documentary and cinema verité are good because they are good films,” thereby isolating these films as aesthetic objects merely, to be judged only in terms of their own internal cohesion. “It is not enough to say that ordinary direct film is not perfect, it has not even been finished.” Neither do these films match his bourgeois ideal of an aesthetic object that is “finished”, “polished”, “whole.”

Perhaps his most outrageous proscription is saved for experimental filmmaking: “...various experimental films, with their avalanche of gratuitous and anarchic images against a background of heterogeneous percussions, capped by some overblown avant-gardist text.” Although it is true that a theoretician in France might not have had the same opportunities to see and learn from the extraordinary (in terms of the conscious deconstruction of certain cinematic codes) films of Deren, Anger, Wieland, Brakhage, Snow, Frampton, Gehr, Landow, etc., as an U.S. counter-part, that is still no excuse for also ignoring French avant-garde filmmaking of the 1920s, such as that of Dulac, Epstein, L’Herbier, etc.. Interestingly, a famous predecessor of Metz also omitted citing the strong influence of the French avant-garde on the rest of filmmaking: it did not serve André Bazin’s theory either. Clearly, Metz would rather dismiss or completely ignore certain areas of filmmaking practice that would not fall under his prescription for fictional narrative. Unfortunately, this dismissal includes some of the very films which are now asking the most questions about cinematic discourse. Also, Metz does not make his criteria explicit (e.g., “It is surely not some principle of objectivity, some faultless realism, that can define this modern cinema but rather the liability to certain truths, or to certain accuracies ...” For this reason, it can only be assumed that the unarticulated bases for his judgments lie in his unadmitted ideological assumptions.

There is another point at which Metz sees the mechanisms of narrative as “natural.” He believes that the motivation of a viewer for linking film segments together “must be explained by the spontaneous psychological mechanism of film perception.” He quotes from another theoretician (Anne Souriau) who said that the spectator “interpolates spontaneously the visual material that the film presents.” It is important to remember that whenever any two pieces of film are joined together that some sort of signification occurs other than a mere chronological “reality.” Metz wants to have this linkage remain neutral. He doesn’t account for the fact that we learn to read a series of images and their connections in a culturally and ideologically determined manner.

Metz knows better by now the danger of concepts like “author”, “genius”, “creativity”, “expression”, “subject, “living word,” etc.. But readers of this earlier version of his theory should be aware that Film Language is rampant with these idealist phrases. Deeply inscribed in his cinesemiotics is the “Great Men Theory of Cinema.” Metz’ heroes are Antonioni, Visconti, Truffaut, Resnais, and early Godard. He is not particularly interested in cinema signification per se, but only in the specific signifying practice of proven “great artists.” Throughout the book he constantly refers to these men as geniuses and distinguishes them as “directors having a style,” a singularly sloppy notion of “style” for a semiologist.(5)

Situating Film Language in a film historical context is to see Metz as going beyond but not making a real break with his predecessors like Bazin, Astruc, and Pasolini. Although it must be admitted that he has cleaned up his act quite a bit in his later books, he still insists that he is a neutral scientist.(6) Metz does not approve of Cinéthique and others’ attempts to use theoretical insights into film as a prescription for a revolutionary filmmaking activity—it would not be “scientific.”

It is illuminating to contrast Metz’ stance and theory with that of Umberto Eco. Eco sees semiology as a tool for revolutionary activity and talks about “semiotic guerilla warfare.” If you can’t seize or change the institutions of production, you can at least change the way they are perceived. The comparison of these two theoreticians is a good argument against the ideology that maintains that a “political” analysis is always and necessarily a reduction of the aesthetic object under study. It is exactly at that point where Metz’ bourgeois ideology insists that he read political/ cultural determinations as “natural” that Eco believes a cinesemiotics must begin Eco is not more “intelligent” or “imaginative” than Metz, it is his political analysis that permits him to go further theoretically even into the “aesthetic” considerations.

I will not, as the Cinéthique people do, go so far as to insist that Metz’ inability to come to terms with aspects of cinema theory is a neurotic inability to defile the celluloid on which it is printed because it is somehow in his mind akin to incest with the mother. However I do think that there are some dangers in embracing this longed for translation of Metz with open arms. Film Language is deeply imbedded in and informed by the dominant patriarchal/ bourgeois ideology and should be read (and it should be read) with that in mind.


1. Screen , spring/summer 1973, London (translation).

2. “Articulations of the Cinematic Code”, Umberto Eco, Cinemantics, no. 1, Jan. 1970, London.

3. David Curtis, Experimental Cinema (Dell, N.Y.), p. 11.

4. “Review: What Is Cinema?” (André Bazin) by Annette Michelson, Art Forum , summer 1968.

5. See “The Semantics of Style,” Seymour Chatman, in Structuralism , ed. by Michael Lane (Jonathan Cape, London).

6. Metz’s unpublished lectures are more frankly polemical than his books and essays. See “Metz’ New Directions” by John Finn in the next issue of Jump Cut .