An Approach To Sequence Analysis

In this brief introduction, we will cover the following questions.

• Why is a sequence analysis useful?

• How can a sequence analysis be selected?

• How long should a sequence be?


During the 1990s, several publishers have brought out series on individual films. Whereas the British Film Institute (BFI) series 'Film Classics' and 'Modern Classics' both include French films,37 neither has a standard format, reflecting the fact that both series are intended to address the film buff as well as the film student. In France, however, the Paris-based publisher Nathan, one of the several publishers working in the university market, brought out, as one of its film series, a series called 'Synopsis', intended specifically for film students. These are short 130-page handbooks,38 with a standardised format:

• the life and films of the director

• the credits of the film to which the handbook is devoted

36 Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and Theo Angelopoulos's Topio stin omichli/Landscape in the Mist (1988).

37 At the time of writing (September 2001), these are L'Argent and The Three Colours Trilogy in the 'Modern Classics'; Boudu Saved From Drowning, L'Age d'Or, L'Atalante, La Nuit américaine, Les Enfants du paradis, Napoléon and Pépé le Moko in the 'Film Classics'.

38 The following handbooks have appeared since the late 1980s (French films only are listed): À bout de souffle, A nos amours, Les Enfants du paradis, La Grande illusion, Hiroshima mon amour, Jules et Jim, Le Mépris, Mon Oncle, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Partie de campagne, Les 400 coups, La Règle du jeu, Un chien andalou/L'Âge d'or.

• the historical and social context

• a detailed breakdown of the sequences in the film (what is known as a 'découpage)

• the structure of the narrative

• the characters and the themes

• detailed analysis of two or more sequences

• critical views

• bibliography

The sequence analyses therefore come at a point when the reader has considerable knowledge of the film; it is for this reason that we preface the analysis in each case with a brief synopsis and contextualisation. Sequence analysis is used as a kind of close-up on the way the film works at all levels. It is intrinsically a useful exercise, because it allows very detailed work to be done on the film, teasing out issues of mise-en-scène, cinematography and soundtrack, and thereby helping the film student to develop a deep, as opposed to superficial, visual and aural awareness. It is also often a useful way of illustrating some of the main points made in the course of an essay, helping the writer to pinpoint issues of style, characterisation, narrative and so on, which might have been discussed in more general terms as part of an essay's argument.


We will not discuss the issue of how one decides what forms a sequence. This was debated thoroughly during the 1960s by Christian Metz, as was explained in Chapter 2. In practice, the selection of a sequence of film for analysis can be determined, often intuitively, by specific cues such as an obvious lapse in time in the narrative, a substantive change of location or an aural cue such as a change in the non-diegetic music. None of these cues in themselves, or even taken together, necessarily signal what could be defined as a new sequence, which is why intuition is often the best guide, supported by the evidence provided by cues of this kind.


Sequences, as Metz showed in the 1960s, can be of very different lengths and types. When choosing a sequence for analysis, it may be worth remembering that a very short sequence of, say, one or two minutes, may not yield enough material for a sustained argument. Conversely, a long sequence of, say, 15 minutes may well yield too much material. In practice our experience over the years has been that the optimal length for a sequence for detailed analysis is somewhere between 7 and 12 minutes.


We would recommend the practice, laborious though it may be, of detailed transcription of the image-track and soundtrack, what the French call découpage. One example of what this may look like can be found in the series published by L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma, an invaluable resource for students of French cinema (although the series has films other than French as well). These look like screenplays, with a detailed transcription of numbered shots, dialogue, camera and character movement (and, as an added benefit, usually contain substantial articles on the film and a review of reviews of the film). Another way of presenting a sequence analysis is in a tabular format, containing numbered shots, a description of their content, transcribed dialogue, and additional material when necessary, such as descriptions of the soundtrack, or cinematographic points of interest.

A second issue to do with the form of a sequence is that it may often be useful to compare material. In the sequences analyses that follow, we give two types of comparative sequence analysis. The first is to compare the film sequence with its equivalent in a source text, such as a novel; the second is to do the same with another film, particularly when the film chosen for analysis is a remake.

The key issue is that both of these formats encourage close viewing of and listening to the sequence, unlike the more general superficial awareness typical of a first-time viewing. It is often on the basis of such detailed empirical work that an analysis may be constructed, because it makes us more aware of patterns, repetitions and emphatic camerawork requiring comment.

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