The problem we face here is self-evident: how to address an unquestionable classic of film theory yet again?

At a first glance, it might seem like almost nonsense – its contributions to the field are well asserted, decades of criticism have given evidence of its many shortcomings, and the focus of its matrix field, Semiotics, has shifted considerably. Anyway, a text, or rather a collection of them, which is the case of Christian Metz’ two volume Essais sur la signification au cinéma (Essays on the Signification of Cinema), specially belonging to such an open-ended genre as essay is, might allow some inquiries.

Metz himself was perfectly aware of the tentative character of his efforts. That is the reason why he refused to go through major revisions, in order not “to perform retroactive writing, that sort of anti-labour, which planting an a posteriori conciliatory unity […], has as its main effect the selective elimination of displacement and tension lines, that is precisely what renders life to a work”.1 Instead of a closed theoretical enterprise, we face a process. A process published in a fragmentary way from 1964 through 1972, in several key French journals (such as Cahiers du cinéma and Communications), and put into question by the author himself, as he does, to give the most obvious example, in the interview closing the second volume and conducted by Raymond Bellour.2

As already said, the relevance of Christian Metz’ Essais…, whose first instalment was published in English under the title of Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema,3 is widely acknowledged. Nevertheless, revisiting it is worth the effort. In the foreword to the Spanish (also two volume) edition, French semiotician François Jost highlights the Essais… key contributions4 to the field of film studies. I will focus on three of them:

  1. A phenomenological approach to cinema from the perspective of the spectators: How come we feel we are experiencing an almost real spectacle? How do we recognise a narrative?
  2. The introduction of Étienne Souriau’s coinage diegesis, meaning, “the necessary world to comprehend each film narrative”, according to Jost (p. 14).
  3. A lengthy, years long, weighting and rumination, of the problem of cinema considered as a language or a language system,5 that we can read in a “few tens of pages” (p. 18). Following Jost, Metz first distanced himself from two equivocal positions: 1) those who considered cinema a language but never cared to understand what a language is, such as Sergei Eisenstein, and 2) those who regarded cinema as a representation of the real, which would take it beyond the realm of language, as André Bazin. The challenge then was to address the problem of film as a language or a language system using the intellectual tradition devoted to it, that is, Semiotics. In order to achieve this Metz set himself two tasks, Jost claims:
    1. First “‘to separate’ cinema from the world”. “When two images follow each other, we feel the incoercible reflex of binding them together with an invisible narrative thread (an ‘induction current’) in which Metz sees the trace of a language: ‘going from one image to two images, is to go from image to language.’ And what is more: it is the act of comprehending the narrative which allows to understand film language: ‘one understands the syntax because one has understood the film.’” (p. 15).
    2. Metz second task was separating cinema from cinema-language. There are three crucial differences: 1) linguistic sign is arbitrary whereas cinema is analogue (images and sounds are perceptually similar to what they represent); 2) while words can be split up, it is totally impossible to detach image-signifiers from their significates, what they represent, therefore cinema works through blocks of reality; 3) shots are (partially) more similar to sentences than to words. Metz concludes cinema has no defining characteristic of language, instead it works as a language system, since a language system “designates ‘everything said with the intention of saying something’” (p. 16). Here we are deep into volume II, not available in English, where Metz go as far as declaring that “a film is, first of all, speech” (ibid.).Trying to understand the inner workings of such language system, Metz worked at pains to delimit and classify basic blocks of meaning – he labelled those “autonomous segments” – and the system of their interrelations, under the name of large syntagmatic category.6 Jost explains it with a resonant phrase: “The so-called film ‘grammar’ rather was a rhetoric” (p. 18). Anyway, the bigger problems were identifying the autonomous segments themselves (vol I) and their demarcation (vol II), but leaving sound out of the inquiry.The large syntagmatic category paved the road for a second generation of French and Québécois Semioticians, such as Jost himself7 and André Gaudreault.8

Being a disciple, Jost, includes some other highlights in his introduction to Metz’ Essais… But the most likely outcome if someone were to conduct a survey on that would be to underline the ones selected here.


Now, we can go back to our initial question: “How to address again an unquestionable classic of film theory?” I think Christian Metz gave us a clue. In the already mentioned interview with Raymond Bellour, Metz pointed towards a new preoccupation, developed during the process of thinking, a necessary differentiation between language and code, that is, between “the matter of expression” and “a purely logic and relational set” of forms only an analyst can “build”.9 For him, code is not compulsorily filmic, it can come from other media.

But let’s disagree following him, let’s think each film as a code in itself, and occasionally a code absorbing other codes. And in a more obvious dimension, let us remember a code needs first to get coded in order to be decoded. There is no isolated code with an isolated “analyst.” We participate instead in a flow. Filmmakers try to communicate or express things through cinema; and spectators find meanings and emotions triggered by those films. Each film, just like any other “text”, works as a hinge, a crossroad, a portico… A provocation a creator throws, and from which persons make sense, according to their values, cultural capital, experience, headaches…

Was Metz unable to see this? In a sense, of course. His concentration on the semiotic problem of language had the explicit goal of understanding films in themselves, a quest of his time. Semioticians all over Europe, the former USSR and the US were trying to become as scientific as possible, which meant isolating a phenomenon, to analyse it, that is, to weed it in order to box it, taxonomize it. He also had an inevitable blinder, a zeitgeist blinder – nobody really cared or wondered what happened with the receivers, until a little later the uses and gratifications theory and the way more influential Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, brake through. But a little later makes a great difference. As does considering those where Anglosphere occurrences in a time when French thought was still central – especially to the French themselves.

Metz was as scientific as he could, which in a way means an “essentialist”. His large syntagmatic category is an ontology of sorts, a way to understand film-in-itself, its inner workings, its being, detached from everything else.

And what did he achieve? Contradictory results.

On the first hand, his lengthy, two text, study of Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1962) is as relevant to prove his categories as dull. After the most fastidious analysis of the movie (demarcating and describing scenes, sequences, autonomous shots and segments, alternate syntagmata…) he concludes: 

This explains the fact that, on the average, there are more autonomous segments in a film than there are “sequences” (in the nontechnical sense) and that, for example, Adieu Philippine – a film of normal length, which has by no means been overedited – should contain eighty-three autonomous segments. (p. 198).

And the reader wonders if everything was worth the effort. Specially after the unambiguous evidence, decades apart, of the lack of ultimate transcendence of most of the terminology.

Then, on the other hand, one can turn their sight to Metz brilliant study of Federico Fellini’s (1963), a profound examination of a particular case of mirror construction (mise en abyme). is a perfect case for the semiotic-structural analysis pursued by Metz since

it is a film that is doubly doubled – and, when one speaks of it as having a mirror construction, it is really a double mirror construction one should be talking about. It is not only a film about the cinema, it is a film about a film that is presumably itself about the cinema; it is not only a film about a director, but a film about a director who is reflecting himself onto his film (p. 230).

Guido’s, the main character, problems, Metz goes on, are Fellini’s problems, which leads to what can be labelled as a paradox: the ‘film in the film’ is, in this case, the film itself (p. 232, emphasis in the original). And this paves the way for Metz to use a rare, within the scope of his aims, poetic solution: Fellini’s film only starts after it ends,

but is this not simply because the last stage of creation – that voluntary awakening that stops the undefined course of things in order to establish the work – can never be described in the created work, which owes its creation only to that ultimate step back, to that infinitesimal yet gigantic instant that is all that separates Guido from Fellini? (p. 234).

Yet one cannot avoid to notice this conclusion is not necessarily Fellinian; instead it is Metzian – his reading as a semiotician + film critic + spectator.

A full circle gets drawn here, we may argue, going back, without the author noticing, to the initial preoccupation in the Essais…: the phenomenology of spectatorship. Metz faces the film, just as any other viewer, from a unique perspective defining the way he decodes the code () encoded by Fellini. Naturally, his decoding, taking the form of an essay, becomes itself a code to be decoded by its readers, precisely what I am doing, and you along with me.

Approached from a 50-year distance the seed in Metz critique of his own work, is quite relevant considering the philosophical novelty of relation.10 Scientific isolation, with its essentialist pursuance of reality, was, and is, a necessary stage in knowledge, as far as comprehending phenomena form a distance, allow us to examine them and understand them in a profound yet detached way.

This sounds like theory itself. θεωρία, theōría, means contemplation – but also speculation. In social sciences and humanities both procedures could easily inform the two sides of a coin. On the one side we find the pleasures of interpretation, on the other the rigour of exactitude. Anyway, as of late, rigour, transcending the frontiers of the personal and social self, became démodé. 

Just a few paragraphs above, I myself labelled “dull” – trying unsuccessfully to render in English the Spanish adjective árido, with its overtones of aridity and arduousness – Metz’ more scientifical labours. The point is, reaching out toward phenomena, making the great effort of erasing our “constraints”, is too demanding, and way less rewarding – at least in the short term – than vocal, resonant readings. Right now the (scientific) rusty obverse of the coin, contemplation, became almost undesirable; while the polished back, speculation, opinion, no matter how well-supported, gains momentum.

In any case, considering both the Essais… shortcomings and hits in the bullseye, Metz challenges us to reconsider the whole theoretical edifice, where the world is as important as our readings of it. This twofold relation, if sometimes failed, may open yet a chest of mysteries.

Original Edition: Christian Metz, Essais sur la signification au cinéma (Paris: Klincksieck, two volumes, 1968 & 1972).


  1. Christian Metz, “Presentación” in Ensayos sobre la significación en el cine (1968-1972): Volumen II, trans. Carles Roche (Barcelona: Paidós, 2002), pp. 11-12.
  2. Raymond Bellour and Christian Metz, “Entrevista sobre la semiología del cine” in Ensayos sobre la significación en el cine (1968-1972): Volumen II, pp. 207-231.
  3. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (The University of Chicago Press, 1990).
  4. François Jost, “Prólogo a la edición castellana” in Christian Metz, Ensayos sobre la significación en el cine (1964-1968): Volumen I, trans. Carles Roche (Barcelona: Paidós, 2002), pp. 13-23.
  5. All English terminology come from Michael Taylor’s rendering of Metz’ Essais… In this case I also consider relevant to quote his contextualization:
    The terms
    language and language system (…) translate (Ferdinand de) Saussure’s crucial distinction between langage and langue. Language (langage) indicates language in general, that is, the human linguistic capacity. It is the universal category that contains the myriad specific instances of language system (langue): French, English, Urdu, but in addition, those other “languages” of chess, of heraldry, of computers, etc. Speech (parole) is the antithesis, or, rather, correlative, of language system: language system is the social aspect of language, whereas speech is the utterance, the actual practice, of a language system. (Michael Taylor, “A Note on Terminology” in Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, op. cit., pp. xiii-xiv.) All quotes from volume I, the only one translated to English as stated in the main text, will also be taken from Taylor’s version.
  6. Let’s resort to Michael Taylor once again:
    De Saussure saw the linguistic sign as a unit of relation between a signifier (signifiant) and what it  “signifies,” or conveys, the significate (signifié). Signs (or units of relation) are related to other signs syntagmatically or paradigmatically: syntagmatic relations are those which exist among the actual (or “present”) elements of a statement, and paradigmatic (or associative) relations are those which occur among the potential (or “absent”) elements of a statement (those elements which might have been but were not actually selected). A syntagma is, consequently, a unit of actual relationship, while a paradigm is a unit of potential relationship. The large syntagmatic category (la grande syntagmatique – Metz’s own term) is the organization of the major actual relationships among units of relation in a given semiological system (these relations may be potential ones, but they are not paradigmatic, because they are actualized in analysis). (“A Note on Terminology”, p. xiv).
  7. Dominique Chateau and François Jost, Nouveau cinéma, nouvelle sémiologie (Paris: Minuit, 1979).
  8. André Gaudreault, Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit (Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1988).
  9. Bellour and Metz, “Entrevista sobre la semiología del cine”, p. 218. Metz elaborated the topic in his next book: Langage et cinéma (Paris: Larousse, 1971).
  10. Considering as the starting point Édouard Glissant’s 1990 Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997).