Film Theory: Denotation Vs. Connotation, Cinematic Vs. Extra-Cinematic


On the level of the sign (image, word), ideology works by a sliding between connotative and denotative usages of words or images. The Strict, literal definition of an expression (word, image, sign) is not always easy to distinguish from its connotative uses (i.e. the suggestive and associative levels). What passes itself off as denotative “natural” meanings may already carry a number of implicit connotations (See the discussion of semiology in definition 11 above.)


Another way in which ideology is communicated in film is through the specific properties of the shot, its iconography, which include mise-en-scene, composition, dress, gesture, facial expression, focus, and lighting.


The film narrative combines diegesis and discourse and represents a chain of events occurring in time, in a cause-effect relationship.

The diegesis is the denotative material of film narrative (the Story, i.e. actions, happenings, characters, items of Setting), while the discourse refers to the means of expression (i.e. the use of language and other Sign Systems in a spatio temporal order) rather than to content.

Discourse also contains, as its points of reference, the conditions of expression, a source of articulation (“I”) and an addressee (“You”).


The discourse is structured through a set of rules or conventions that semioticians call the code. The cinema employs a complex system of codes pertaining to its heterogeneous levels of expression: codes of representation and editing, acting and narrative, sound, music. and speech. Some of these codes are specific to the cinema (e.g. editing), while some are shared with other forms of art and communication.


Keeping this distinction clearly in mind prevents us from falling into the trap of sociological critics, and linking screen image and lived experience too simplistically.

The cinematic refers to everything that’s on the screen, and to what happens between the screen image and the spectator (what results from the cinematic apparatus)

The extra cinematic refers to discussion about:

(i) the lives of the director, stars, producers, etc.,
(ii) the production of the film in Hollywood, as an institution,
(iii) the politics of the period when a film was made

(iv) the cultural assumptions at the time a film was made