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The Language of Movies

It’s almost time for the big dance! The Oscars are just around the corner and you are no doubt getting your house organized for the party. Every year you’re always forced to invite your wife’s brother-in-law who tries to pretend he knows everything there is to know about films.

This year it’ll be different! Because the French were heavily involved in the beginnings of cinema, many of our current terms come from the language of love. Here are five movie terms that may give you an advantage over your obnoxious relation as you argue about the winners afterwards.

Translating Movies

1. Auteur

Literal Translation: French for “Author”

Contextual Translation: Back in the early days of movies, the director was just a technician. The screenwriter was the true artist, as he or she came up with the idea and scripted the entire story out. The director would come in and do their best to get the story on film.

Oscar and the language of moviesHowever, beginning in the 1950s, the auteur theory started to take hold. This theory is that films should reflect the director’s personal vision despite studio interference. Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Jean Renoir are considered to be true “auteurs” of their films in that they didn’t compromise, or compromised as little as possible.

This naturally upsets some screenwriters, as their role and efforts are greatly minimized. Even if the film came from a film they wrote from their own mind, an “auteur” director can take all the credit simply through his use of film.

2. Mise-en-scène

Literal Translation: French for “Placing on Stage”

Contextual Translation: This one is a bit more difficult to explain. The term is from the world of theater and there are actually two totally separate contextual interpretations for it. Both ultimately achieve the same end, though.

In both translations, mise-en-scène means everything that viewers of a movie can see. The idea of mise-en-scène is the scene dressing tells the story as much as the script does. For instance, say you have a scene with someone who seems incredibly confident giving a speech in his house. If his house is empty, sparse, cold and messy, maybe he’s not so confident after all?

The two interpretations of the term basically come from the fact that some believe the placement and movement of the actors should count as mise-en-scène. Others do not believe this, that it should just be the set dressing. Either way, it boils down to what the viewer can see and the feeling they get from it.

3. Arret

Literal Translation: French for “Halt” or “Stop”

Contextual Translation: The halting and stopping in the literal translation references the camera. Arrets were one of the earliest tricks of the silent film era. You usually only notice them when they’re poorly done.

Ever seen a movie where two people are in a fight and the cowboy throws the pirate off a building? Whenever you watch that scene, you notice that the pirate seems to change right before he goes off the side to his death. What happened is the director stopped the camera, took the actor out, and put in a dummy. The cowboy then throws the dummy off the building. This way, they don’t murder the actor playing the pirate!

This technique is called an arret. It’s actually one of the earliest tricks of cinema. Movie viewers don’t really fall for it anymore, but occasionally you do still see it pop up now and then.

4. Avant-Garde

Literal Translation: French for “Advance Guard”

Contextual Translation: Avant-Garde originally meant the part of the army furthest in the front. They were the “advance guard,” those were leading the rest. When the term made its way into the world of cinema and art, it described those artists who felt they were innovative and ahead of the rest of the majority.

Thus, since the term applies more to the artists themselves than a particular art form, nailing down avant-garde cinema and art is notoriously difficult. One can almost say true avant-garde movies won’t be recognized as such until after the style is adopted later. Some filmmakers working today like Harmony Korine are considered avant-garde due to their unique sensibilities. He has a cult following from those sick of Michael Bay-ish explosion fests.

When you think about it, however, in a world where everyone made films like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, a Michael Bay-ish explosion fest would be considered avant-garde!

5. Film Noir

Literal Translation: French for “Black Film”

Contextual Translation: Think of your favorite black & white crime films: The Big Sleep, Key Largo, perhaps The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. See all the shadows, the smoke and fog, the silhouettes? What you’re thinking of is film noir.

Beginning in the early 1930s, film noir wasn’t called that until way after the era died. Before they were simply called melodramas. However, the distinct style of using shadow and absence of light made film scholars give it its own distinct name. Black, of course, was used in the name because of the aforementioned use of shadows.

While it’s almost impossible to recreate the style with color film, movies today often mimic other aspects of the genre. Mulholland Drive, The Pledge, and Dark City all owe much of their look and success to the old crime movies from the 1940s through the 1950s.