by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 12-13, Winter, 1976-77, pp. 45-51
© Lesage, 1977


It is not often that a film teacher comes upon any book that will entirely change her approach to teaching film. Before I read S/Z by Roland Barthes, my own method in teaching basic film or film and literature courses on the college level was the same method which I had learned--a combination of aesthetic history and analysis of the expressive uses of cinematic technique. However, my critical interests in Marxism and feminism required more precise ways to define and teach about the interface of society and art. For example, the first wave of women's film festivals led me to want to teach more about women in the arts, but I soon faced the limitations of the concept of "the image of..." as an approach to teaching film courses, the content of which could be about any oppressed group.

Barthes' S/Z was a book I wanted to buy as soon as I had leafed through it in the French edition before it had been translated. It has a fine summary outline in the back and it has a lot of "gimmicks" and sections which engage the reader wherever she starts--in the beginning, middle, or end. I knew it would be useful for me even before I read it because it emphasized interactions between artistic and social conventions. Furthermore, Barthes was clearly motivated to write the text for a radical reason--to promote an understanding of those conventions which regularly articulate bourgeois ideology in literature and the visual arts. By raising unconscious mechanisms to a conscious level, the progressive critic and teacher has a specific end in mind, to give people more control over their own lives. Knowledge is power.

In my previous study of the work of Jean-Luc Godard, I had come to accept as a given Godard's axiom that all films are fiction -- documentaries, too. All films which have a narrative framework subordinate their elements to a certain end. I was aware of the pitfalls of the so-called objectivity of documentary realism, especially that of cinema-verite, for all the viewer of a documentary finally has of the original "pre-filmic" situation is a highly structured film. Barthes' treatment of literature in S/Z foregrounds the mechanisms of literary "realism." To display how the realist text works, he de-emphasizes a purely internal narrative analysis and emphasizes the ways that elements from the writer's milieu have entered and are used on the microlevel of the text, especially in the sense that a narrative propels the reader along on a cumulative, time-based experience. If we compare his methodology to cinematic analysis, S/Z uses a strategy that resembles a shot- and single-frame analysis of a film's visual track. Because of Barthes' detailed look at precisely those types of things in literature that film critics look for in film study, I have tried to apply his approach to teaching and analyzing film. And such an application of Barthes' methodology to both classroom teaching and film criticism has proven fruitful both for me and my students.


S/Z reveals a teacher's mind. In this book Barthes not only demonstrates a way to apply semiotic, structuralist, psychoanalytic, linguistic, and poetic concepts to the analysis of a single literary work but also sets foreword a detailed, concrete example of his method. He traces out the conventions and cultural codes in a single work of short fiction, Balzac's Sarrasine. At the same time, he explains the theoretical basis of his approach to enable others to do the same critical work themselves. Throughout his career, much of Barthes' scholarly work has functioned implicitly as a polemic against and explicitly as a corrective to current critical practice. In this case, with S/Z, he rejects the deadly finality of an explication de texte or an Aristotelian or New Critical analysis of Sarrasine. Barthes uncovers no definitive "meaning" for the work, but rather he opens it up to multiple readings. Indeed he implies that the work of the critic/teacher is to teach not only how a tightly plotted work gives the illusion of completeness, but also the many ways in which that illusion of completeness is but one determinant, albeit a primary one, of the text.

Barthes' work as a whole is explores how art mediates social assumptions and cultural patterns from the artist's and audience's milieu. Since cultural objects and patterns, such as dress, food, and drink, artifacts, traffic, architecture, etc., are the extra-cinematic material which forms the very stuff of narrative film, as do conventionally determined forms of verbal and gestural expression and human social interaction, film students can follow with interest Barthes' theory, summarized in Elements Of Semiology and drawn upon in S/Z, about how such artifacts and conventions are part of entire coded systems which follow laws first traced out in the field of linguistics. 1 S/Z itself suggests whole new ways to think of a film as being simultaneously an art object and an index of culture. To open up cinema to both a semiotic and rhetorical analysis in the way Barthes opens up literature in S/Z would lead to an increased understanding--in political, historical, anthropological, and cultural terms--of how film narrative, image, and sound track incorporate and also shape cultural conventions.

Barthes labels codes and conventions as they function in a work of art. As he emphasizes in keeping with his larger purpose as a teacher of literature, when we can name these codes and conventions, we perform a critical act, make sense out of a work, and gain control over previously unconscious ideological mechanisms in art, our psyches, and our milieu. 2 He emphasizes that later rereading a work allows us to "multiply its signifiers," that is, to find new perspectives on it, new understandings about how the work itself is constituted. He wants readers to learn to name and define not only gross narrative and ideological structures but also to work "back along the threads of meaning." (p. 12)

"To read is to find meanings, and to find meanings is to name them, but these named meanings are swept toward other names; names call to each other, reassemble, and their grouping calls for further naming." (p. 11)

In S/Z and other works, Barthes presents a number of concepts which seem to have a direct applicability to film study. In Writing Degree Zero he first introduced his fruitful distinctions between "classic" and "modern" literature, i.e. between open and closed narrative works, distinctions which he maintains in S/Z where he chooses to analyze a closed narrative, a specifically "classic" text. 3 This analysis in S/Z can be extended to feature films since most commercial film narratives depend on conventional narrative structures. Indeed, in the twentieth century with the sweep of Modernism in other arts, primarily film has given new life to the tightly plotted, closed narrative form so beloved in the 19th century.

In discussing the application of S/Z to film study, I shall concentrate on one film which has a complex narrative but which ties up all its narrative threads at the end-- Barthes' criterion for a "classic" text. Jean Renoir's THE RULES OF THE GAME is an exemplary text and is also readily accessible and reasonably well known. Indeed, this film offers one of the closest cinematic parallels we have to Balzac's work, since Renoir's themes about bourgeois society come straight from the tradition of the realist bourgeois novel and bourgeois drama. However, just as Barthes analyzed one work in order to point out pervasive trends in the bourgeois narrative tradition which are still existent, largely unconscious, and "ideological," most other films with a closed narrative form could have been used as well.

Barthes uses the term "code" in a deliberately looser way than do film semioticians such as Christian Metz or Raymond Bellour, who draw heavily on linguistic-oriented models of analysis. 4 Barthes' use of the word "code" is closely related to concepts of social and artistic convention and the rituals of everyday life. In this, he is close to Umberto Eco, who presents a general theory of codes in A Theory of Semiotics (Eco seems heavily influenced by Barthes).5 According to Eco, conventions are limited and generally predictable within any given culture, for culture structures its members' lives and even their very perceptual capacities through various sets of preestablished (yet historically changing) intellectual and behavioral models. It is only because of cultural convention that people define what they perceive, assign meaning to it, and respond significantly. Certain intellectual structures, such as language, are codes based on rigid rules. Others, such as visual or iconic codes, rhetorical ones, and--to a lesser degree--psychological ones are looser and vary to a greater degree across history and across cultures.

In daily life and in art, conventions establish what is probable, plausible or obvious. They provide whole clusters of seemingly natural details. The fact that these details and the conventions behind them are unremarkable means that ordinarily we do not notice or discuss them, that they are lost until named. What Barthes wants most to analyze in S/Z are the social and artistic codifications shaping that phenomenon we call "realism." What this notion of realism usually tells us is that there is some denotation, some external reality, some conclusion to which the literary or cinematic text necessarily points. An example of this is André Bazin's championing of film realism, especially the stylistic devices of the long take and deep focus cinematography, as providing "a window on the world." What Barthes teaches in S/Z is that there is only an illusion of "realism" in a narrative. The cohesive maintenance of that illusion depends on the integrated functioning of five levels of coding, all of which work together to suggest the plot's "meaning" (often signaled by the denouement) and all of which suggest other previously established cultural meanings beyond themselves.

As Barthes distinguishes five main areas of cultural coding, he calls the codes "voices." He traces the play of these codes within a single narrative work. He says that each of the codes forms a braid or lacework, one strand being picked up, worked into the major pattern and then left for a while, only to be returned to later; the interstices of the strands "are positions held and then left behind in the course of a gradual invasion of meaning." (p. 160) By themselves, the codes are merely expressive; but as they are intertwined artistically, they are both manipulated and act upon each other to form that kind of meaning which results from a narrative work of art.

The five levels of coding that Barthes traces out in Sarrasine and which I shall discuss in detail in their applicability to film function as follows: 1) The Enigmatic Code structures the plot proper by implanting certain key questions or enigmas and then delaying the answers or giving false leads -- thus giving us a story. 2) Action Codes establish what actions are conventionally prescribed in certain situations and how much of each action is, must, or must not be shown. They let us know which actions are important or appropriate to present in a narrative. 3) Referential Codes enter the text through explicit references to the established knowledge of the time, such as science, medicine, history, literature, or the visual arts; on a more vulgar level, the artist may also refer to popular assumptions and common sense--"what everyone knows." 4) Semic Codes let us label persons and places in the narrative in an adjectival way. They "characterize" the character as a person with certain attributes and certain motives; these adjectival attributes (such as "undecided," "resolute," etc.) are the "semes." 5) The Symbolic Code could also be called the psychoanalytic structuring of the text. Barthes draws primarily on Sigmund Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss to describe the symbolic "economy" of a narrative and defines the major symbolic rhetorical device in literature as antithesis.

All five of these codes are bound by the heavy weight of convention and tradition, resulting from centuries of what Barthes calls the "what's already been written and done." The semic, symbolic and referential codes function more flexibly in the narrative than do the enigmatic and action ones, the enigmatic being the most rigid, and the symbolic the most fluid of all. The codes determine specific moments in the text and suggestively reflect back to anterior moments or forward to later moments in the narrative proper. They also relate to other texts and to the author's general ideological, historical, and cultural background. All five levels are connotative and suggestive. Barthes uses a spatial metaphor to describe the relation between the way codes function sequentially in the text and the way they bear extra-textual meaning:

"Analytically, connotation is determined by two spaces: a sequential space, a series of orders, a space subject to the successivity of sentences, in which meaning proliferates by layering) and an agglomerative space, certain areas of the text correlating other meanings outside the material text and, with them, forming a "nebulae" of signifieds." (p. 8)


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":

"Connotations add qualities and attributes to a denoted subject. Connotations refer subjects to social relations, social structure: to our routinized knowledge of social formation. Codes also refer objects to a structure of beliefs and valuations about the world."6

"In social life, these domains of meanings are both distinct enough to mobilize a whole set of associative meaning--yet overlapping enough so that an object may refer to more than one "associative field".... These criss- crossing sedimentations of meaning link the areas of social life. Together they constitute the "map of meanings" in a culture."7

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. 8 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 reeducation 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.


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 of 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 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. 9 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. 10

"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." ll

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 setting frequently connotes worldliness, naturalness, mechanicity-especially in relation to Robert and his mechanical toys, artificiality, class, servitude, or richness. Some of these connotations Barthes also traced in Sarrasine and indicate a kind of subject matter and psychology dear to the bourgeoisie, i.e., the cost of being on top. The dress code connotes masculinity, femininity, eroticism, beauty, rigidity, informality, class, age, or sophistication. This code, combined with the gesture, voice, age, and movement codes, indicates how integral the capturing of, i.e. possessing, a beautiful young woman is as a function of bourgeois art. A beautiful woman seems classless; she has this asset to trade for social gain--but the very concept of beauty in art and the semes which connote erotic desirability have been constructed by those in power who can buy beauty, men. The semes of beauty that men capture in art are their own fantasies. The gesture code in THE RULES OF THE GAME connotes roughness, sincerity, petulance, understanding, cynicism, obedience, power, gentility--sometimes excess gentility, awkwardness, world-weariness, dislike, hospitality or sadness, as well as erotic intent. Again, gestures are clearly codified according to class and sex. The movement code connotes age, adeptness or awkwardness, determination. Verbal characteristics such as tone of voice and type of vocabulary often connote emotions such as despair and humor, but they also convey important information about eroticism, power, and class.

The above still was taken from 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.


"Resumes of common knowledge, the cultural codes provide the syllogisms of the narrative...with their major premise, based always on public opinion ("probable," as the old logic said)...."

Barthes makes this observation as he discusses why the hapless lover dies in Sarrasine. Like André Jurieu in THE RULES OF THE GAME, Sarrasine is killed because he is ignorant of or perhaps willfully ignores the complexity of social mores. What triumphs for the other characters in both novella and film is the reality principle, which for them turns out to be composed of social reality and institutional codes. The cultural codes which "form the premises of the major syllogisms of the narrative" in THE RULES OF THE GAME relate to the title of the film. Renoir presents explicitly the rules governing marriage and adultery in high society, the rules of the hunt, the rules governing relations between masters and servants, and the rules governing peer relationships (courtesy, friendship, honor, jealousy, gossip) among masters and among servants. Renoir's major theme here is about the suffocating nature of received ideas; the "rules of the game" have an all-pervasive, determining influence over whatever might be natural so that the natural becomes lost. Thus the film as a whole, in its entire narrative structure, criticizes through art the received cultural codes shaping both society and its own art.

Most people read a film as they read a novel, not attending to the social and cultural conventions, the artifice, behind the actions and words presented. Thus, even though THE RULES OF THE GAME raises the theme of social convention vs. nature, it still presents the flow of its own discourse as natural, as "life.

"Although entirely derived from books, these codes, by a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology, which turns culture into nature, appears to establish reality, "Life." "Life" then, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering layer of received ideas." (p. 206)

Within the flow of the narrative, the codes of cultural reference inverse their bookish origin and are implanted in the words and actions of the characters as something natural or proverbial. For example, in this film the characters comment on how lovers should and do behave (the social lore of love and lust) as if these were ideas everyone shared; the audience is not led to challenge such assumptions. Explicitly described in the film is the way nature must submit to society, and the most smoothly coordinated social event is the hunt, which leads us directly to criticize aristocratic abuse of Nature, per se. Yet in the way things "happen," just as in any narrative film, the social events themselves flow along "naturally." We accept what happens among the characters as probable, likely, or natural, as "life."

In studying a film we should examine those cultural codes which the text explains (the rules of the game), which it assumes we know (masculinity/femininity, the psychology of persons of certain types, ages, nationalities, professions, etc.), or which the authors or characters just mention in passing ("We've all come here to hunt....not to write our memoirs." l2). Renoir carefully details the daily rituals and the codes of behavior between the de la Chesnayes, among the servants, and between the two groups. We expect a different pattern of behavior from Robert toward Christine than from Schumacher toward Lisette. The de la Chesnayes' marriage relies on codes of elegance, entertaining, courtesy, and hospitality. The servants' marriage is partially controlled by their work situation, with Lisette preferring to be with her mistress Christine in Paris than with her husband at La Colinère. (Lisette is a conventional name for the maid-confidante in French comedy.) When Schumacher gives Lisette a present of a warm cloak (code of practicality), she dismisses his gift as not pretty. When he chases her would-be lover Marceau with a gun (code of jealousy for lower class males), she pacifies him by saying she'll do anything he wants (psychology of the clever, dominated wife), even go back to his small town in Germany. This reflects the code of rural vs. urban mores, as Schumacher wants to get Lisette where she will not be able to flirt with other men, and also the code of ethnic psychology: rural Prussian vs. urban French.

In general, in narrative film, the audience calls upon its knowledge of a vulgar code of the psychology of human types. In THE RULES OF THE GAME the house guests at La Colinère quickly distinguish themselves as types. The General belongs to the ancien regime. The ingenue Jackie is a university student, which is supposed to account for her lack of sexual sophistication' Octave and an older woman factory owner are the jolly fat people, and the woman's conversation draws on codes of popular science and medicine, diets, and card games. A young homosexual male character enacts a highly coded role in the tradition that homosexuality in fiction is supposed to represent upper middle class decadence. Geneviève, presented in her own apartment earlier as the Paris sophisticate, is here forced into the stereotypical role of the cast-off lover. André Jurieu as well, even though the house guests receive him as a modern hero, enacts the role of a desperate lover.

Geneviève's whole character is sketched very quickly in an early sequence, which relies on our coded knowledge of the worldly woman. Whereas Christine wears white silk or ruffles, Geneviève is first seen wearing a black dress with a geometric lace design across her chest; she is smoking a cigarette held in a cigarette holder. She also entertains a group of men, serves mixed drinks (code of modernity), and cites a cynical line from Chamfort on the definition of love (code of "looseness"). When Robert comes to her apartment (geographical code--we see Trocadero from the window), she wears an ornate Chinese kimono and receives him in a room containing Oriental Buddhas, potted plants, and cut flowers (codes of excess, exoticism, chinoiserie, artifice, art, flowers). When Geneviève presents her guests mixed drinks. that is part of the code of modern hospitality. The codes of modern life must be contrasted with the codes of tradition if we are to grasp the full savor of the General's cliché (as a member of the "ancien regime") which he repeats twice in reference to Robert: "That La Chesnaye doesn't lack for class, and that's becoming rare."

Actually the whole modern world enters the film only schematically. In the first scene we have rapidly presented a variety of codes intended to indicate "Modern Life." These are the codes of radio transmitters; those of Paris geography--Le Bourget; of crowd psychology; of cheers-- "Bravo"; of newsworthy events; of the techniques, vocabulary and psychology of news reportage--both on the part of the interviewer and the interviewees; of contemporary history-- the Lindbergh flight; and of the techniques of police control. Just as the airplanes flying over Paris in World War I provide that jarring image of modernity in Proust's REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST to remind us that, in fact, aristocratic mores are a thing of the past, so too this first airport sequence, packed with assumptions about modern life, establishes the parameters of the game in THE RULES OF THE GAME, the film then ending with the General's words about the loss of aristocratic standards.

What Renoir refuses to do, and this is one of the virtues of the film, is to say that the modern (André) is better than the aristocrat (Robert) even though the film indicts aristocratic decadence. The contrast between aristocratic and modern, particularly as expressed by the General's cliché and by André's inability to understand Christine's position, functions to show that neither the aristocrats nor the "moderns" can understand each other except in terms of trite language and conceptual baggage. Indeed, the film presents this contrast between aristocrat and modern particularly ambiguously since Robert de la Chesnaye is a nouveau riche aristocrat, a Jew, and thus an outsider himself--which fact is harped on by some of the servants, who are more purist in such matters than their masters. To further complicate our attitude toward Robert, at the end he understands more than the other characters, yet he will smoothly cover over André's murder as an accident.

In general, we read the semic codes, the level of adjectival amplification, on the level of the single frame or across small gestures. As soon as we see a setting or a personage in film or in a photograph, we "label" it; that is, we rapidly interpret the semes insofar as they relate to characterization, mood, and the development of the plot. The codes of cultural reference work themselves out on a grosser scale, especially the dialogue. Often the two codes mesh. We can observe the art, architecture, gardens and statuary in La Colinère and derive the adjectival semes, "French aristocrat" or "dignity." But we can also examine in more detail how Renoir introduces and uses established cultural codes related to art and to the manor house or country estate.

Studying film with videotape would allow one to go back and notice the implantation of cultural codes which would otherwise pass quickly by as "natural." We can readily distinguish those codes which are repeated often enough to become stereotypes (André's excess of despair as a frustrated lover), but we often miss smaller ones that are not reinforced by an essential relation to the developing enigmas. Once we understand how much a film utilizes information and assumptions formulated anterior to the film, it becomes irrevocably clear that what cinema captures is social truth and institutionalized knowledge, not unmediated reality.


Action codes tell us what is considered "normal" action in a culture and also how to present that action in a representation: certain details and the chronological ordering of these details seem necessary or appropriate in literary fiction and film. Action codes not only establish what actions are conventionally prescribed in certain situations (e.g., a kiss in a romantic scene) but also how much of each action must be or is shown. At the end of S/Z Barthes presents a list sequentially tabulating all the actions that were clearly definable in Sarrasine , and this list lets us see how conventional the range of actions in fiction is.

We know that very few complex actions--for example, surgery or cooking a meal--last as long on the screen as in real life. An exception is a filmed conversation when it is necessary for the audience to hear the whole thing. Even here, film technique rests on certain cultural assumptions. The conventional use of a series of close ups to film a conversation assumes that the audience's knowledge of the "rules" of how a conversation flows from one person to another will provide the continuity between shots of two individuals. each seen separately.

Two other common types of action sequences narrative film are what Christian Metz calls "ordinary" and "episodic" sequences; in the former, bits of unnecessary action are eliminated; in the latter, representative stages in the development of an event or relationship are shown. l3 Obviously the decision about which actions to show in the various shots of a sequence depend on previous portrayals of action in film as well as audience expectations about what is "representative" or "unnecessary."

All film theorists from Eisenstein and Pudovkin to contemporary writers on film semiotics have seen a close relationship between editing codes and the representation of human actions. Such a relationship is most obvious in invisible editing or action cutting, but more recently scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Daniel Dayan and Raymond Bellour have demonstrated how the whole foundation of realist film editing--field and reverse cutting--is based on cultural assumptions about point of view which is based in film on the human glance. 14

In THE RULES OF THE GAME many actions are presented schematically, particularly the moments of courtship. In only one larger action, the hunt, do we see many of the component parts detailed; here, too, each of the many participants -- both aristocrats and servants--are depicted doing only a few representative, clearly defined things. Of all the codes, the action codes are the hardest to analyze in detail on first viewing because they seem so ordinary and taken together, create such an illusion of continuity that they "form the main armature" (p. 255) of the "classic" text. Yet the presentation of cinematic action is never more than artifice. Whoever sees a film "amasses certain data under some generic titles for action (stroll, murder, rendezvous), and this title embodies the sequence of actions; the sequence of actions exists when and because it can be given a name, it unfolds as this process of naming takes place, as a title is sought or confirmed." (p. 19)

The action codes, both in terms of the human actions presented within a shot and editing on the basis of action, often seem "natural." Because the narrative is "saturated" with mechanisms to create meaning, the audience fills in the causal chains, assuming continuity when really the film it presentation is discontinuous. The seeming continuity in classical prose fiction and narrative feature films comes from the fact that the actions serve multiple functions: they have a purpose in the narrative and they have a connotative and symbolic value. Furthermore, these actions gain in sense and continuity as the traditional narrative makes them serve a double function: we see each action both as determined and as determining something else. In other words, actions, like the characters' choices, are overdetermined. l5


A fifth level of narrative coding which Barthes discusses, in addition to enigmatic semic, referential (to establish knowledge) and action codes is that of psychoanalytic or symbolic coding. Symbolic codes, or the "play" of symbols, as Barthes prefers to say, work themselves out in art in terms of motifs common to the culture as a whole. Thus psychoanalytic criticism of art or auteur analysis of film often seeks out themes, motifs, or archetypes. These symbolic structures are extremely fluid and do not reflect social rituals and expectations as obviously or as directly as the referential, semic, and action codes do.

Barthes uses Freud's language, but his analysis of the symbolic "economy" of the text comes directly from Claude Lévi-Strauss. The latter, in his Structural Anthropology, asserted that we should study language, kinship, and economics in linguistic terms and interpret society as a whole in terms of a theory of communication. To cite Lévi-Strauss:

"This endeavor is possible on three levels, since the rules of kinship and marriage serve to insure the circulation of women between groups, just as economic rules serve to insure the circulation of goods and services, and linguistic rules the circulation of messages. These three forms of communication are also forms of exchange which are obviously interrelated (because marriage relations are associated with economic prestations, and language comes into play at all levels). It is therefore legitimate to seek homologies between them and define the formal characteristics of each type considered independently and of the transformations which make the transition possible from one to another." 16

According to Barthes one can enter the symbolic field of the text on any of three levels: language, kinship or sex, and commercial economy. Language operates on the basis of an economy that is "usually protected by the separation of opposites" (p. 215), i.e., paradigms. The major rhetorical device which carries the symbolic motifs of the text is the antithesis, each term of which is exclusive and fully meaningful in its own right. Middle-ground figures transgress the antithesis, "pass through the wall of opposites" (p. 215), and abolish difference. Barthes also analyzes the symbolic field of the narrative by discussing the economy of genres and the economy of bodies, which Lévi-Strauss would call kinship codes; as Barthes says, their "parts cannot be interchanged." (p. 215)

Barthes considers two ways that capitalist economic relations are symbolized in or rather form the "symbolic economy" of Sarrasine and his observations can also be applied to THE RULES OF THE GAME. The characters deal with each other personally by means of informal "contracts," and the narrative as a whole treats capitalist (vs. aristocratic, land-based) wealth as nouveau riche. In both language and commerce, paradigmatic barriers let us understand the bases of equivalencies and exchange, which are the foundation of all meaning (under capitalism such exchange depends on private property). In the classical narrative, representation depends on an order of just equivalencies, by means of which we can regularly distinguish contraries, sexes, and possessions. 17 Yet only when an excessive element enters which interrupts the normal circulation of the antitheses, sexes, property relations, or contracts that the narrative begins. It is the transgressor that impels the narrative toward its climax or catastrophe. Symbolic and narrative requirements in a work of fiction finally merge, for narrative resolution not only means the final and irreversible "predicating" of the subject and the end of the story (for there is no more to say) but also the end of the symbolic search, what Barthes calls a symbolic closure or return to order.

In THE RULES OF THE GAME one can note a whole series of related symbolic antitheses which generally reinforce each other and which have a long tradition in the history of Western literature and art. Such antitheses include the following pairs: civilization vs. nature; sincerity/lies; ingenuousness/ sophistication; simplicity/complexity; naive eros/eros socialized; organic life/artifacts; life/death; fecundity/ emptiness; outdoors/indoors; lower/ upper; servants/masters; the male camp/the female camp; richness/poverty; power/dependence; property/ wildlife; childishness/maturity; the greenhouse/ the manor house.

In addition, the characters are paired with doubles among the masters and the servants. The inflexible idealist Jurieu has his parallel on the servants' level in the inflexible Prussian gamekeeper Schumacher, who enacts his ritual bond with Jurieu by executing Jurieu. The poacher Marceau and Robert de la Chesnaye are specifically paired: Marceau shows Robert the art of poaching; Robert promotes Marceau to Marceau's long-dreamed-of role as a household servant; Marceau has dreams of elegance in a uniform, and in the film Robert is the male who is most meticulously dressed. Both involved with mistresses and jealous rivals in one sequence, the two men share their views on women.

The servant Lisette is inseparable from Christine for she identifies with Christine completely. As the critic Philipe Esnault says, Lisette devours Christine with her eyes. 18 It is because Lisette loans Christine her cape when Christine goes off to the greenhouse with Octave that Schumacher thinks he is shooting his wife's lover. Also, Saint-Aubin is a double for Geneviève. After Christine discovers her husband's affair, she does not turn to André, as we might expect, but rather throws herself at one of the house guests, Saint- Aubin. He is otherwise an insignificant figure and one might wonder at his role as Christine's potential lover until his symbolic function as Geneviève's double is perceived: both are the accepted adulterous partners from the aristocrats' peer group--that is, for adultery within the "rules of the game." If she had had an affair with Saint- Aubin, Christine would not have left the group nor her social/ marital obligations--as she had planned to do with either Octave or André. In the same way, Robert had conducted an affair with Geneviève yet had felt fully responsible to both his marriage and his social ties. Thus the structure of doubles can be diagrammed as follows:


André and Schumacher--Purists and Fools

Christine and Lisette--Untamed Female Eros and Love

Saint-Aubin and Geneviève--Erotic Partners in Adultery Who Will Play by the Rules

Robert and Marceau--Male Lovers Who Are Socially Adept

Not in this pairing is Octave, who at various points in the narrative acts as the "transgressor." l9 In terms of class he is neither master nor servant, but a bohemian hanger-on in both the artistic and aristocratic worlds. (In Renoir's original outline for the film, Octave's economic dependence on the de la Chesnayes was made more explicit.) That Octave, the middle class intellectual, might be in a position to love either a servant, Lisette, or an aristocrat, Christine, also leads to André's death, for Schumacher thinks he is killing Octave meeting Lisette.

At first glance, because of André's speech over the national airwaves denouncing the absent Christine, it might seem that André is the interloper, transgressing the marriage bonds between Christine and Robert. Yet this conflict is settled rapidly; Christine's sincerity leads Robert to break off his affair with Geneviève. Indeed the whole opening incident could have led to closer relations between Christine and Robert. But the film would have ended there. The transgressor who moves the narrative is Octave, who demands that Christine and Robert invite André to La Colinère. Once at La Colinère, André is depressed at this friendly but formal reception by Christine and would leave except that he is encouraged by Octave to stay. Finally, Octave, who all along has been identified with Christine's father and who has offered her avuncular, asexual friendship and protection, succumbs to her declaration of love and her desire to flee her husband's milieu. Octave symbolically transgresses incest taboos. Lisette senses this and expresses her strong disapproval when Octave is about to elope with Christine, saying, "But imagine those two living together. I think that young people should live with the young and the old folks with the old." Reverting again to his role of offering Christine asexual love, Octave sends André off in his place and in his coat, causing not only André's death but also his own curse, his permanent exclusion from Christine and Robert's milieu.

Visually, Robert represents the ego, meticulously dressed for the right social occasion and showing on his face an extremely sensitive response to every social situation. Lisette and Christine--dressed in ruffles, filmed with halo lighting, shown smiling and in moments of sheer exuberance and joy--are pure feminine egos, a potential fecundating principle and the prizes sought after by men. In fact, they are dependent on both men and the social structure dominated by men. A principle that Lévi-Strauss states as an unquestioned given is that "in human society, it is the men who exchange the women and not vice versa." 20 THE RULES OF THE GAME partly deals with the two women's efforts to exert their emotional independence and to escape the limitations placed on that independence.

Geneviève in her dress and comportment represents eros socialized. She knows her place. Marceau and Schumacher competing for Lisette are the erotic id and the superego in opposition. Octave and André are the two types of anal figures (as Norman O. Brown described the anality of the bourgeoisie in Life Against Death 21). Octave, fat, unkempt, shaggy, is not only the avuncular protector of Christine but also a childlike figure, thus fit to be the friend of the petulant, idealistic, compulsive, and adolescent Jurieu.

Symbols are more diffuse than semes, which as we have seen are commonly accepted cultural indicators of qualities or adjectival "labels." As Barthes says in Elements of Semiology , a symbol is an inadequate representation, e.g.., a cross does not adequately express all of Christianity. A seme, on the other hand, conveys a fuller sense of its signified. Octave's clumsiness is conveyed rather fully by the way he moves, the de la Chesnaye's richness by the objects in their apartment, the architecture of their homes. On the other hand, Octave's pleas for someone to help him out of his bear's costume symbolize his sexuality and say something about his coming emergence from an avuncular role to that of Christine's potential lover. Geneviève, the sexually free woman, can finally be prevailed upon to help him out of the costume but she does so begrudgingly and in the process throws him to the floor.

To a large degree the semes can be read synchronically, on the level of the single image or on the level of the shot. The symbols, however, especially in the working out of the antitheses, mediations and transgressions, proceed diachronically. Substitutions, such as those of figures serving as doubles, are worked out on the syntagmatic level, and are frequently metonymic substitutions in which the whole is represented by a related part. The dying rabbit in the hunt scene stands for helplessness. animal life and fertility; the sacrificial death of André Jurieu; Christine's softness and love.

Barthes also finds implanted in the text other symbols such as a child-woman figure or queen-servant relationships. Obviously in THE RULES OF THE GAME the hunt and the masquerade are symbol-laden episodes that need almost no dialogue. Barthes insists that both the semes and the symbols are multivalent and reversible, so that the seme, "richness," or the antithesis, "nature/ civilization," can be borne by any of the figures in the narrative in a multiplicity of ways. These reversals can be seen, for example, if we consider Christine's use of lipstick as "artifice" and Robert's rejecting Geneviève as his effort to act "sincerely" in his marriage--although Christine is otherwise often associated with naturalness and ingenuousness and Robert with sophistication.


Language is symbolic representation; cinema is primarily iconic. That is, the relation of word to object in writing or speaking is purely arbitrary, while cinema is built on photography, which renders a two-dimensional representation analogously similar to its object. In literature, the description of the human body depends on the fragmentation of a whole into its parts for the sake of metaphoric or connotative description in words; this necessary fragmentation influences the way the enigmatic, action, symbolic, and semic codes are worked out in literature; literary authors paraphrase other texts previously established in the same verbal (spoken and written) mode. A photograph offers us its iconic codes and its connotations all at once. In feature films, once the subject has been established by the enigmas, the setting or specific objects in that setting can fully connote a character even though that character is not on screen. Metonymy or the representation of the whole by one of its related parts is the major rhetorical device which carries symbolic and semic coding in feature films.

Christian Metz has demonstrated that the minimal syntagmatic unit in film is the shot; the discussion in this article of synchronous connotation on the level of the single frame is not intended to establish the frame as a complete signifying unit. Obviously much of Barthes' discussion of the relation between linguistic syntax and the literary narrative cannot be applied directly to film. Yet, because audiences receive the syntactic flow of shots and the editing in a film as "natural," one could also work out the ideological role of the shot in the way that Barthes describes the ideological role of the sentence. The shot often masks our awareness of how a film uses cultural codes. It rigidifies denotation, and "it yields meaning with the security of an 'innocent' nature: that of... syntax." (p. 264) Furthermore, since Metz demonstrates that all of narrative film's syntagmatic structures are dependent on intentionality or on the development of a "plot," one could well add a Barthesian analysis of film to Metz's analysis of film's major syntagmatic structures. 22 Just as a caption gives a preferred reading to a still photograph, so in feature films, as in classic literary narratives, the enigma "anchors" the connotations, actions, and symbols, and structures the cinematic sequence form itself.

Since Barthes is mostly concerned with language in its relation to narrative discourse and with the play of meaning across a number of semiotic codes of which verbal language is only one, his major methodological premises can well be applied to the study of film, which is still primarily a narrative art form. In addition his criteria for quality in traditional narrative art can help us evaluate popular culture, for Barthes does not build on some canon of great works but rather evaluates a closed narrative by its successful orchestration, integration, and manipulation of cultural and symbolic codes:

"...a "good" narrative fulfills both the plurality and the circularity of the codes: ceaselessly correcting the causality of the anecdote by the metonymy of the symbols and. inversely, the simultaneity of the meanings by the operations which lead on and use up expectation to its end." (p. 77)


1. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974). Further citations from this edition are indicated by page numbers in the text. Writing Degree Zero And Elements of Semiology , trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (Boston: Beacon, 1970). Return.

2. The radical film/literary critic often seeks to raise unconscious ideological mechanisms to the level of consciousness so that we may "gain control" over them. Certainly those critics who combine a Marxist and a psychoanalytic approach, such as Christian Metz in his current work, have that intent. Such radical critical practice serves the function of both consciousness raising and theoretical investigation, but the notion of "gaining control" and ideological change must be dialectically related to a more general economic, social, and political movement for change in the society at large. As Mao asked rhetorically, "Where do correct ideas come from?" Return.

3. Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology , op. cit. Return.

4. Christian Metz, Language and Cinema, trans. Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok (The Hague: Mouton 1974). Raymond Bellour is concerned with "segmentals" and "supra-segmentals" in film, which are linguistic concepts. He presented a paper on the supra-segmentals in GIGI at the Milwaukee Film Conference in November 1975. See also his "The Obvious and the Code," Screen, 1S, No. 4 (1974-75). Return.

5. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, trans. David Osmond-Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976). Return.

6. Stuart Hall, "The Determinations of Newsphotographs," Working Papers in Cultural Studies, No. 3 (1972), p. 65. Return.

7. Ibid. Return.

8. Roland Barthes. "Rhetoric of the Image," Working Papers in Cultural Studies, No. 1 (1971). Return.

9. In semantics, a seme is a unit of the signified. The seme is that quality which is signified by the connotation, e.g., richness. Both Barthes and Eco conclude that in a semiotic sense the sum of all the connotations in a given society, the sum of all the "semes," define the society's ideological presuppositions. Return.

10. Umberto Eco, "Towards a Semiotic Inquiry into the Television Message," Working Papers in Cultural Studies, No. 3 (1972), p. 114. Return.

11. Hall, p. 66. Return.

12. LA REGLE DU JEU: L'Avant Scène du Cinéma, No. 52 (1965). Translation mine. All further citations of dialogue are cited and translated from here. Return.

13. Christian Metz, Film Language: The Semiotics of Cinema (The Hague: Mouton, 1971). Return.

14. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen, 16, No. 3 (1975); Daniel Dayan, "The Tutor Code of Classical Cinema," Film Quarterly, 28, No. 1 (1974); Raymond Bellour, "THE BIRDS," trans. from Cahiers du Cinema, No. 216 (1969), available from the BFI. Return.

15. 0verdetermination is a Freudian concept, brought into current critical thought by Louis Althusser and frequently used by Barthes in S/Z. To paraphrase Althusser, one can apply his concept to the choices, motives and actions of the characters within a traditional closed narrative: the characters' choices, motives, and actions are inseparable from the total structure of the narrative in which they are found, inseparable from their formal conditions of existence and from the instances they govern. The characters' actions and choices are radically affected by these instances, determining and also determined in the one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the narrative they animate. The narrative work as a whole is also overdetermined, reflecting and responding to the contradictions of the society in which it was engendered. See Althusser's For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Vintage, 1970), p. 201. For a detailed analysis of the function and mechanisms of overdetermination in a single film, see Charles Eckert, "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMAN," Film Quarterly, 17, No. 2 (1973-4). Return.

16. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Anchor, 1967), p. 82. Return.

17. Following Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, Barthes sees sexual differentiation and the exchange value of women as a structural determinant of the creation of both linguistic meaning and commercial or interpersonal "contracts" or relations. Such an analysis of the interrelation between psychic-linguistic-economic structures is deterministic in its premises, and feminists such as Juliet Mitchell who accept these premises do not demonstrate how these structures change across history or under socialism or if they can be fundamentally altered at all. In this particular instance, I would only note in passing that proof of the inadequacy of Barthes' treatment of sexual symbolism is that he cannot deal with homosexuality and androgyny but must treat the story of a man's unwitting falling in love with a castrato only in terms of the antithesis between and "transgression" of an essential maleness and an essential femaleness. Return.

18. Phillipe Esnault, "Le Jeu de la verite'." L'avant Scène Du Cinéma, No. 52 (1965), p. 11. Return.

19. See Lévi-Strauss, p. 221. Return.

20. Ibid, p. 45. Return.

21. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959). Return.

22. Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema. Return.