Geneviève is presented as a worldly woman.
Summing up at the end. Viewers might understand Robert's words as a "cover-up" but collectively could they agree on "what happened" to lead to André's death? That's what the trajectory of the film is about.
The DVD has become a cinefile format. Even more so, Blu-ray provides excellent possibilities for close examination of visual detail, especially in the mise-en-scene. This essay was written before the film was available on VHS.
The question of how Christine will handle the gossip after André's radio statement at Le Bourget is answered in this sequence, shortly after the guests' arrival. We see her social adroitness. Less obvious on first viewing are Octave and Robert's actions and faces in the background, indicating their nervousness. After her speech, with joyous relief, Robert announces he will throw a big party for André.
The Colonel, left, disdains to indulge in gossip about Christine: "Did she or didn't she with André Jurieu?"
Octave, the poacher, is a clown, here framed in nature.
Christine and Lisette are archtypically feminine in their coding and the way they are filmed.
Robert phones Geneviève. His setting here and hers at her apartment connote artifice, even brittleness.
Marceau, the poacher turned servant, and Robert discuss women. Robert looks especially world weary.
Students of literature, sociology, art, and history often study film as a way to study culture. One can trace out many large cultural myths and models in film, such as assumptions about romantic love or social life as experienced by the parvenu. Conventional ways of photographing women or of presenting class relations reveal as much about the cultural assumptions shaping a film as they contribute to the film's narrative. Yet if we are to understand how feature films mediate cultural structures, we must also understand how these cultural structures enter film. Older film studies, such as those of the auteur critics, recognize, let us say, a feathers motif in Von Sternberg films as a symbolic or metaphoric representation of femininity. More technically oriented studies such as those of the mise-en-scene critics discuss the connotative functions and cultural basis of halo lighting, deep focus, or Cinemascope.
In a Barthesian analysis, analysis of theme or of uniquely expressive cinematographic techniques would be of only partial interest. Small gestures, transportation modes and traffic patterns, architecture, fashion styles, furniture, time of day, details from urban life, mechanized means of communication, workplaces and labor, food and drink customs, and courtship rituals all are represented in narrative film and bring important subcodes to it. These areas of life provide the visual "stuff" for film, and in turn, film makes us see these things with new eyes. Such subcodes function narratively in characterization and plot but also obviously derive their meaning from associations drawn from the society at large. Barthes' approach is superior to that of the auteur critics in that he does not reduce the text to, or only concentrate on, those signifiers which express the predilections of a "creator." Rather he allows us to examine the ordinary ways that social coding enters into and is used by a work of art.
In an analysis of a single photographic image (in an essay which owes much in its methodology to Eco and Barthes), Stuart Hall notes how ideology—here, equal to the sum of a society's connotations—functions to provide a favored reading of a news photograph, an image socially reputed to be "factual" and "objective":
In literature the denotative principle, the "one which seems to establish and to close the reading" (p. 9), is enacted by the Enigmatic Code, which Barthes also calls the "voice of truth." The Enigmatic Code establishes the sequence and the order by which we "find out things" in the narrative and limits and controls what we will attend to.
I shall discuss this code at greater length later but here would also indicate that the same principle of a "nebulae" of connotations being limited by the sequential ordering of a little "drama" or even just a single sentence also determines the way we interpret or attend to the visual connotations in an advertisement, in photojournalism, in television, and in silent and sound film. For example, in an essay, "The Rhetoric of the Image," Barthes earlier analyzed the composition of a single photograph in which he found a synchronous play of connotative elements but also a preferred meaning suggested by the caption. Similarly in any narrative film—silent or sound, fiction or documentary—the "story" of the film provides the anchor for the other connotative codes. The narrative limits the polyvalent image to a certain range of emotional and social interpretation.
In an implicit general attack on the abusive structuring of leisure in advanced capitalist societies, Barthes insists that we must create, not consume, aesthetic meaning. Both because of the commercial nature of film viewing and because of the chronologically determined, closed nature of narrative film structure with its beginning, middle, and end, most people want to see a feature film only once. Perhaps they sit through the beginning "to catch what they missed" if they came in late. In economic terms, they pay for a ticket and consume a show. In the structure of what they see, narrative tension determines the pacing of all the codes. People who see films only once anticipate primarily the end of the story. In Barthes' terms they always repeat the same kind of chronological experience with the mindset that "this happens before or after that." Yet they and we stubbornly cling to the ideological belief that this first viewing is a "primary, naive, phenomenal reading which we will only, afterwards, have to 'explicate,' intellectualize." (p. 16)
In a consumer society, the ideological function of such a belief is to valorize the craving for novelty, make everyone an authority on the "movies," and as a result make film studies as a discipline inherently suspect. Although some films seem more amenable to "instant" first reading, disposable like Kleenex and appealing completely to surface gratifications like pinball, and some films seem richer for multiple viewings, a Barthesian analysis opens up both kinds of texts to multiple readings, tracing out the ways in which the films use cultural significations and establish their own interconnected levels of meaning. It is within the context of such a reading that Barthes discusses the "richness" of a text like Balzac's Sarrasine, a richness which Barthes finds mainly on the level of symbolic interactions and reversals—which one could trace out only on rereading or reviewing a work.
It takes a re-education to make people want to see films twice or more. We tend to reread poems several times but experience novels and films only once. Barthes attributes that to the dominance of the narrative level, or plot. Knowing this, most film teachers instinctively discuss the role of convention and connotation in the acting, cinematic technique, decor, use of genre structures, etc., as they try to push students to attend to more than the plot. By tracing out how the various levels of coding interact in a single film seen several or many times, we can reread the film in a new way each time we see it. Analytically, reviewing a film "multiplies it in its variety and plurality" (p. 16) as we learn to attend to other levels of signification beyond the linear experience imposed by the plot. The critical act teaches us to create our own aesthetic experience and saves us from a dulling consumption of art.
Although he borrows from Aristotle's Poetics and from sociology, in his own technique of analysis, Barthes is far from an Aristotelian who subordinates the parts to the whole, nor is he a sociologist who tabulates and analyzes cultural codes by means of literature. In S/Z he takes the novella Sarrasine and breaks it up into arbitrary convenient short sections which he calls "lexies." After each section he notes the introduction of, passing, or working out of narrative enigmas, antitheses, cultural references, adjectivally-describable connotations, and symbolic exchanges. Narrative enigmas are paced, never immediately answered; otherwise there would be no story. The other connotative and symbolic levels enter in as structured "noise" or countercommunication against the enigmas, and this "noise" makes up the whole texture of the work. In the implantation of the codes, in the pacing and gaps of their "play," Barthes sees the uniqueness of any given narrative and an indication of the quality of the work of art.
To undertake a project like S/Z with a film would mean to have a class study perhaps just one film a semester. The film should be videotaped or shown on an editor-viewer, but in front of a large class one could just stop the projector. A good published film script would provide another important aid. To analyze any feature film short section by short section, one should minimally note down the following: the semic codes, which frequently can be worked out on the synchronous microlevel of still photography or a single frame; the action codes, seen chronologically on the level of the shot and in the editing of action sequences, the narrative codes, which, as Christian Metz has shown at some length, are worked out mainly on the level of the sequence; and the symbolic codes, which fluidly move between the composition of the frame, the filming of the shot, the editing within a sequence, and the combination of sequences to form the films as a whole. Indeed, to accomplish the equivalent of S/Z about a single film, one might best make an analytical videotape, or rather a series of tapes. These would alternate shots of the film (several taken together as a "lexie") with one's own analysis, which could then make use of clips from other films, photographs, diagrams, taped sounds and noises, and any other appropriate audiovisual support.
To describe in detail the five levels of coding and how they function in film, I have drawn all my examples from a single film, The Rules of the Game, yet obviously, without the film at hand for demonstration and in an essay of this length, I cannot give a total reading of the work. I have chosen my references here merely to show how each code can be traced in the work. Optimally, on videotape one could break the film up into small parts and note in each part where the various codes enter and how they are worked out across the length of the film. This is Barthes' method in S/Z, which is as multivalent and open to different emphases in interpretation as the critical attitude he wants audiences to achieve.
Narrative structure and the code of enigmas
When Barthes discusses the narrative construction of a novel, he does not talk about narrative as a formal structure at all. A plot depends on a code of multiple enigmas, which code is experienced by the ordinary film viewer as tension or suspense. Upon reviewing a film we can see more clearly how the enigmatic code functions: the film centers in on the subject-to-be of an enigma; it poses, formulates, and develops the enigma, and it retards and finally provides an answer. The author must delay answering the principal enigmas about the protagonists to keep the story going. The way he/she delays narrative resolution (by partial and incomplete answers, double entendres, ambiguities, or lies) often defines the tone of the work.
The narrative points to but does not tell the truth about a character, especially a protagonist. Human figures distinguish themselves and become characters as the author develops their traits so as to develop and resolve enigmas. Because of the demands of the enigmas, the author both suppresses some character traits and develops others. One of the goals of a Barthesian analysis is to map how certain traits of characters are revealed at certain points; we arrive at a topology of the plot, in which the space of the enigma corresponds to the space of the characterization, which is the semic space.
In the narrative, key structural elements (a gesture, a word, a locale) are first received as unimportant details. The gratuitousness of their introduction makes them seem natural. A narrative only progressively invests its key elements with their full meaning, but it uses what comes first—something we may not have understood fully when we first saw it—as evidence for what comes later. This is the narrative's defense against illogic. Circumstances are shown as compatible, and the characters' choices are seemingly made for a number of different, interconnecting reasons. Barthes calls these tactics "pseudo-logical liaisons." In fact, meaning must be delayed or suspended and circumstances must be manipulated in order to tell a story at all.
The enigmatic code is a sequential one and reduces the plurality and reversibility of meanings within a given text. It is this characteristic sequentially and closure of meaning in "classic" narrative against which modernist artists have reacted in both literature and film. As the enigmatic code functions in a traditional narrative like Sarrasine, it provides "the voice of truth" since it sweeps the reader along temporally in a rush of pseudo-logical connections towards a promised final truth. In film, the syntactical form of the narrative is similarly shaped by this code, which imposes itself on the other codes in the editing, in the shot, or in the composition of the frame. The enigmatic code imposes a certain irreversible order on the presentation of information and limits the multiple expressive possibilities of the medium at any given time. The more a film maintains interest or suspense, the more we read the elements within it in terms of the enigmatic code. By the time we reach the narrative climax, many tentative meanings that had suggested themselves earlier in the work are ultimately suppressed.
The enigmas of The Rules of the Game deal mainly with sexual relations and how they will be handled within a given society. The first enigma is planted when André Jurieu, a transatlantic pilot, is greeted by a crowd on his triumphal return to Le Bourget airport. He bitterly complains in a nationally broadcast radio interview that a certain woman, whom we find out in the next sequence is Christine de la Chesnaye, was not there to greet him. The enigma of André Jurieu's behavior and Christine de la Chesnaye's response occupy perhaps only the first third of the film, when Christine finally receives André at her husband's estate. Then, surrounded by the de la Chesnaye's whole circle of friends and house guests, she explains to all with pride that her friendship with André contributed to his success. This episode is—as Barthes calls any episode—both exemplum and signifier. The enigma of André Jurieu's love for Christine and what is to be done about it provides reasonable and sufficient cause for the final episode in which André is killed.
The other major enigma introduced early in the film is Robert de la Chesnaye's continued affair with the aristocrat Geneviève de Marrast in the face of his wife Christine's sincerity and love for him. Although this enigma seems quickly resolved (Robert phones Geneviève to arrange to tell her the affair is over), Christine sees him by accident in the woods kissing Geneviève goodbye. Here is a classic case of misunderstanding sustaining a major enigma, one necessary for moving the narrative to the climax. There must be a sexual rift between Robert and Christine although we must not doubt either one's sincerity. Furthermore, this mistake is introduced as something natural and accidental in the plot; it contributes to that confluence of circumstances which masks the artifice of the enigmatic code.
A costume party dominates the second half of the film. Numerous enigmas, involving the shifting sexual relations between more than a half a dozen characters, are set and partially answered. Lies and misunderstanding abound. It is at this point that the visual mise-en-scene of the film is crucial, for the audience's delight lies in the rapidity and simultaneity with which the multiple enigmatic situations flash before their eyes. For example, all these events happen almost simultaneously: Christine, thinking Robert loves Geneviève, has drunkenly gone off with a guest, Saint- Aubin, to the dining room. André, who loves Christine, attacks Saint-Aubin. The game keeper Schumacher knows his wife Lisette, Christine's maid, and Marceau, the poacher turned servant, are carrying on—in this scene he pursues Marceau with a pistol, firing, and being chased by Lisette and the other servants. Robert continues as master of ceremonies at the party, presiding at a stage show in front of guests. Geneviève and Jackie, a younger woman who is infatuated with André, faint and are carried off.
It is because Barthes does not try to present an Aristotelian analysis of plot but rather is concerned with analyzing the implantation, interaction, and resolution of multiple enigmas that his methodology is especially apt here. At this point in The Rules of the Game, the intrigue comes from the interweaving of all the love triangles. We ask, "What will Christine-Lisette-Geneviève-Jackie do?" and "What will André-Robert-Octave-Schumacher-Marceau do?" Certain enigmas predominate and move the plot further toward its conclusion. In particular, Christine's motives are ambiguously treated. At the masquerade party, all the action, which seemingly saturated the narrative with meaning, masked a major sub-question posed by the enigma, "What will Christine do?" That is, now we must ask, "What are Christine's motives and whom does she love?" Indeed this enigma is answered ambiguously right up to the end of the film, for in the last third of the movie, Christine tells first André and then Octave, a tacky, good-humored family friend, that she loves each one. Both must believe in her love for the film to arrive at its narrative climax, in which André is sent by Octave, in an act of generosity on Octave's part, to run off with Christine. Finally, the concluding moments of the film are dominated by our questioning of Octave's relation to all the love triangles. He is the one most intimate with Christine as a friend, the real threat to her marriage, yet he has also flirted with Lisette, making the gamekeeper jealous and setting up the preconditions for the denouement. Like Christine's, Octave's own motives ambiguously fluctuate and it is hard to answer, "What will he do?"
A final series of coincidences are piled one on top of another, yet all are necessary for the "coincidence" and narrative climax of André's death. Christine wears Lisette's (Schumacher's wife's) cape. Schumacher no longer chases Marceau, since both had been fired after the party; when he and Marceau see Christine in Lisette's cape with Octave, they assume Lisette and Octave will now have an affair. When Octave sends his good friend André off to the rendezvous with Christine, he gives André his coat. Thus Schumacher shoots André, thinking it is Octave cuckolding him. All of these circumstances are "naturalized" by the fact that all the characters have participated in the exhausting chase scene during the party (as has the audience) and their nerves are frayed; they act hastily, without thinking, and each presumably also acts desperately from passion and/or love. Each of these coinciding circumstances was prepared for long in advance, "determined" in multiple ways. It is only the rate at which coincidence is presented which accelerates at the climax of the film.
This discussion of the implantation of major enigmas in The Rules of the Game lacks Barthes' subtlety, for in S/Z he does not just point out the enigmas but shows how they are centered, phrased, retarded, and developed. For example, by having André chide Christine in a public speech over national radio for not being at Le Bourget, Renoir establishes the enigma of what will happen to André's love with a good deal of wit, which is reinforced by images of the apparatus of microphones, wires and transmitters, and by the voice patterns of an excited woman interviewer and later of a standard interviewee, the flight engineer. The wit is developed further by the cut from the airport to Christine's bedroom; we see an extreme close up of the tubes of a radio apparatus, from which the same interview blares. Only when the camera moves up to frame Christine and Lisette in long shot do we realize that was the back of an ordinary radio receiver and that we are in another place. Similarly when Christine enters her husband Robert's room, we hear the same radio program before we see Robert. When we realize that he is standing by his radio and listening to that program, we can imagine what he is thinking about his wife. All of this suggested and stated information is necessary for the development of the enigma, but the pacing of the visual and verbal details is especially witty in its use of an editing/sound technique which introduces sequences via the mechanism of the very radio program which gave rise to the original enigma. It is thus really only with the film at hand that one can best make the kind of demonstration that Barthes makes in S/Z.
As mentioned earlier, a photograph is particularly rich in connoted or semic information. In it we can usually find signified nationality, social class, erotic desirability, social situation, and threatening or non-threatening situation. These semic connotations are structured in an informal, "ideological" way. As Stuart Hall noted, in any given society, there is a lexicon of expressive features, which imposes on the polysemy or multiplicity of meaning inherent in any given situation not an invariable but a preferred meaning.
Barthes and Umberto Eco agree that we can label traits because of cultural stereotypes or "paradigms" of available images and sounds. Because of repetition through their constant usage in a culture, semic codes work through architectural, linguistic, fashion, culinary, etc. codes and subcodes. In a film semic connotation is borne not only by the visual image but also by stylistic subtleties in verbal language which connote class, emotion, irony, ignorance, etc.. There are also whole other emotional subcodes related to noise and music such as thriller sounds or romantic violins.
"Semes" are adjectivally describable units of connotation. They are the labels we mentally attribute to character and locale. Because narrative film must utilize character to develop its enigmas and because there is a unique emphasis historically placed on the individual subject, semic connotation in cinema devolves mainly around the characters. We "read" the mise-en-scene to tell us something about them. Less frequently a sequence illustrates a theme not directly related to the actions of a character; such a sequence depends mainly on the connoted relation between images. Examples of this would be the sequence of neon lights in U.S. cinema signifying "Broadway" or "going out on the town," or in The Rules of the Game, the death of the animals during the hunt.
More important, in film, both the content and the composition of the shots work to connote the social situation, motives, and emotions of the principal characters. In a single photograph, one can decide things about a person from body position, facial expression, gesture and especially from milieu. In the shot of a film, the character is also seen in movement; from speech and interaction with other characters we can make many more judgments about that person's social situation. There is a whole system at work of mutual and reciprocal expressions and recognition. Finally, as was noted earlier, narrative dominates and limits meaning so that we most frequently read a shot in terms of the story, which is what Barthes meant when he said that consumers (vs. creators) of texts end up receiving the same message.
We also read the semic codes historically because the way we label a character or situation is not only dependent on the sequential development of the text but also derives from our experience in the culture at large. Semic codes, similar to the action codes and codes of established cultural wisdom in the narrative, can be understood only in relation to previous mention in other texts. The units that we can label derive from "something that has been already seen, done, experienced; the code is the wake of that already." (p. 20) As Stuart Hall said in reference to news photographs, the sources of semic connotation are in the whole framework of social codes which are used in any discourse to convey second order meanings. Connotations thus "have the whole social order embedded or hidden within them: social practices and beliefs, the rank-order of power and interest, a structure of legitimations."
Since ideological and cultural codes change with history, we can read the semes in any film or novel as a dated literature of signifiers. The artist's milieu always differs from ours, and we've often seen a film where the audience noticed as unusual or even silly semic connotations taken as natural within the artist's milieu. For example, the semes of beauty or erotic desirability, especially as connoted by fashion, vary from culture to culture. In The Rules of the Game, because of the way they are dressed and filmed and because of their role in the plot, we know that Lisette and Christine are desirable women, more so than Geneviève. However, the film does not signal so directly the male characters' desirability, and one wonders what the visual/verbal codes of erotic desirability in relation to the men were in Renoir's milieu or even now in France? How do we judge the sexual desirability of Robert, André, Octave, Marceau, or Saint-Aubin?
In any given shot we can see how a certain physical space is detached as seme-filled. In fiction and film a person is a collection of semes, the sum of which identify character. First of all, the filmmaker lets us know which character or object is important by keeping or putting that character in focus. Secondly, that character is seen more in the foreground and center frame. Lighting also expresses semes. Especially noticeable in The Rules of the Game is the halo of curls and fine wispy hairs around Christine's and Lisette's heads, which are made to shine by means of a strong spotlight just for that purpose—a light which then connotes "femininity." Close ups connote a special interest in the individual subject, in that person's thoughts and emotions; such a psychological interest characterizes traditional narrative fiction as well as feature film.
In a film, as in the theater, directors carefully control costuming so as to present a certain kind of person appropriate for a certain role. Both film and theater depend on fashion stereotypes or the semic code of dress. Christine is dressed in white silk, white fur, or an innocent Tyrolean folk costume. She usually has a soft white lace collar. Geneviève is dressed in black, a mannish hunting costume, an ornate oriental robe or a harem costume. Lisette, like Christine wears white ruffles around her neck. The respective semes which costuming connotes for these women are naturalness, sweetness and femininity for Christine and Lisette, and sophistication and brittleness for Geneviève.
In the same way, Christine's room, with its dressing table and white decor connotes the seme "femininity." Geneviève, on the other hand, lives in an apartment filled with bronze statues and hothouse flowers, and she entertains three men there with no women present. Her milieu connotes "worldliness," perhaps "ennui."
Barthes tabulates the semes in each lexie as they enter Sarrasine. A brief tabulation of some of the semes in The Rules of the Game would yield the following results:
The images below depict the scene immediately following the playlet at the masquerade party at La Colinère, where Christine saw Geneviève embrace Robert and then ran off with Saint Aubin. After looking for Christine, Robert went into the dining room to change back into his evening jacket. Geneviève followed him and pressed him to go off with her. Octave, in a bear costume, had previously tried unsuccessfully to find someone to help him take it off. Here Geneviève's and Octave's costumes both connote their personalities—burly, awkward, unpolished, and maladroit Octave and jaded, sophisticated and brittle Geneviève (note the metallic jewels). Robert is meticulous, paying careful attention to his clothes, and his face has that expression of world-weariness characteristic of him throughout the film. He stands with his back to Geneviève. She is pressuring him. Octave is trying to pull her away.
This entire scene between Geneviève and Robert, where Robert refuses to commit himself to her, takes place in the center of a large open space in a large cold-looking room, the stag in the background being reminiscent of the slaughter at the hunt. Stuffed birds on the table add to the impression of artificiality and these birds will later be seen knocked on the floor when disorder and chaos invade the party.
In addition, these birds refer us back to the hunt and forward to the death of André since both the animals and André are killed as an extension of property rights. The art work that Robert possesses at La Colinère, a representative sample seen in this picture, consists of statues and paintings of the hunt, stuffed animal trophies, and mechanical toys. In this scene where he tells Geneviève that he cannot leave with her, she realizes that his property and his obligations to his guests mean more to him than she does—the relation between propriety and property being one of the major themes in the film.
Barthes calls semic connotation that "noise" which both names and dissimulates the truth, and the richness of which often defines the artistic quality of the text. The density of semes, like the density of enigmas (connotation running parallel to enigma structure), varies within the text. It is the role of the critic to name the semes within the narrative and thus to define the personages. At times, a clustering of semes leads one to name larger thematics which define whole sequences within the work. In The Rules of the Game these semes expanded into thematics would be sincerity, naturalness, artifice and class; they are what Barthes calls meta-names.