Mse en Scne analysis The English Patient

The English Patient is a highbrow mega-movie that combines technical virtuosity with a large-scale story. The technical credits include veterans such as cinematographer John Seale ASC, ACS, whose credits include Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Rain Man (1988), Beyond Rangoon (1995), City of Angels (1998), and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999); and editor Walter Murch, ACE, who edited The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now (1979), Ghost (1990), The Godfather, Part III (1990), and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) (he also worked as sound editor on many of these films). In the following analysis we shall focus on Seale's (and, to some extent Murch's) input to the creation of a classical mise en scène in The English Patient, plus the applicability to his work of a number of the mise-en-scène heuristics listed above. What emerged as the analysis progressed was the pertinence of applying the same-frame heuristic to this film, and the need to refine it to include the function of selective focus and pull focus (where the selective focus changes as the shot progresses).

In the introduction to an interview with John Seale after the release of The English Patient, Mary Colbert wrote:

Seale maximised his brilliant use of natural landscape metaphors of emotional and psychological states, in the juxtaposition of the dual narrative strands: warm glowing tones for the pre-war African passion-filled sequences, and the more sombre, bleaker look and lighting in the Italian end-of-war scenes when Count de Almâsy (Ralph Fiennes), close to death, and cared for by the Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), in an old Tuscan monastery, reflects on past passion and political intrigue.

(Colbert 1997: 7)

The colour of the mise en scène therefore functions on a connotative level, for the warm, glowing oranges and yellows in the pre-war desert sequences 'express' desire and passion, while the bleak, cold greens and browns of the Italian sequences 'express' the death of desire, hope, and love. Colbert uses the foreground-background and expressivist heuristics to establish a relation between landscape and characters, to indicate how the landscape carries the meaning of the characters' psychological states. Furthermore, the transition between these two landscapes is also coded as psychological: as Almâsy in the Tuscan monastery remembers the past, slow dissolves to the desert landscape mark the transfer. The slow dissolves therefore function as Almâsy's change of consciousness, from his present surroundings to his memories of his past.

In the interview with Colbert, John Seale indicated the need to establish a balance between foreground and background:

Anthony [Minghella] and I discussed the fact that the desert, ultimately, is not a performer in this picture. It is the proper - and colourful - stage for the characters. We deliberately avoided the temptation to lapse into travelogue or picture-postcard photography. It's not my rôle to be overpowering with these visuals. I never panned the landscape unless it continued the storyline. Each image was always connected to the story. Compositions kept the people up front____This was a film about people in the desert, not the desert with people.

(Colbert 1997: 8)

In an interview in American Cinematographer, Seale explained how the choice of lens kept the people up front: 'We wanted to feature the characters in the foreground, so we tended to use medium to long lenses. This helped to reduce distortion on the actors and "pull up" the background. In this way we were able to surround the characters with the environment, keeping it a "presence" rather than featuring it as another character or subject' (quoted in Oppenheimer 1997: 31). This balance between foreground and background, in order to allow characters to dominate the frame, is one indication of Seale's (and Minghella's) adherence to classical mise en scène. (Seale also mentioned that filming the landscape for its own sake - in autonomous shots not related to the story - would simply have increased the length of an already long film. It may have also tipped the mise en scène into mannerism.)

In another indication of his adherence to classical mise en scène, Seale said, responding to a question about his dislike for obvious camera movement: 'I prefer to think the camera is moving to enhance the physical positioning of actors within the scene or set, and is being used to heighten some movement by the actor or machinery, not just to track around somebody for the sake of creating visual energy because maybe the words aren't good enough. ... if you're cutting correctly in your mind, and the performance is right, the audience will be transfixed. Moving the camera can distract both audiences and actors' (Colbert 1997: 8-9). Here we see Seale's clear adherence to classical mise en scène, which he further clarified when he criticized Michael Ballhaus's cinematography in Scorsese's The Color of Money (particularly the 360 degree shots around actors, which function simply to create visual energy) (Colbert 1997: 9).

Finally, Seale's adherence to classical mise en scène is evident in his practice of '[using] the zoom as much as possible as a "fixed" lens. I try to hide the movement of the zoom in a pan, dolly or track so that the audience is never aware of the movement' (quoted in Oppenheimer 1997: 36).

In the following analysis of The English Patient we will first focus on the opening credit sequence and determine how it relates to the rest of the film; identify key moments in the film where the ménage à trois between Almâsy, Katharine, and her husband, Geoffrey, is articulated in the mise en scène (with particular emphasis on the same-frame heuristic); and briefly employ other heuristics to analyse key moments of the film's mise en scène.

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  • Rhoda
    How is mise en scene used in the film the english patient?
    8 years ago

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