Film Theory: Image Theory and Analysis–Sociology Vs. Semiology

Robert Hughes, Art Critic

“People inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in terms of the images they make.”

Marcel Carne, French Director (“Children of Paradise”)

“One must compose images as the old masters did their canvases, with the same preoccupation with effect and expression.”

The Image

The image can be discussed, broadly, in two main ways:

(a) Sociological critics discuss the image in terms of the types of role characters play (e.g. the image of the housewife, the macho male (hero), the homosexual, the villain (anti hero), the prostitute, etc.

They compare the representation of these roles in film to people in these roles in society. The problem here is that such analysis ignores the mediation of film as an art form (i.e. that these images are constructed).

(b) A cinematic analysis discusses the construction in terms of distance of subject from camera, point of view, editing, place. function of a character in a narrative, etc.


These two ways of thinking about the image are reflected in two main approaches in feminist criticism.

First, the sociological method refers to a study of people in society; film critics here use the terminology of sex roles, e.g. Virgin, Vamp.

Second, the semiological method refers to a science of signs; critics here use a terminology from linguistics, discussing film as a signifying system, in which woman functions as “sign.”

The sociological approach was the one the early feminist film critics used, and it continues to be an important method. Concepts such as the distinction made between the domestic (private) sphere of the home, where the wife and/or mother is positioned, and the work (public) sphere, where the husband belongs, are useful but limited.

They do not tell us how meaning is produced in film, and tend to blur distinctions between the realm of lived experience (the
social formation) and that of representation (images on film).

Semiology, applied to film, explains how film communicates, how its meaning is produced in a manner analogous to the way a sentence in written language communicates meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure is credited with introducing semiology or the science of signs. The meaning of language, he said, is found not in the words or thoughts of an individual speaker, but in the relation of elements within the sign system itself. He used the word langue to refer to the whole complex language system with its structure of relationships and parole to refer to the level of speech, where the abstract rules of the larger system are put into operation.

Semiology and the Analysis of Women in Film

Christian Metz extended Saussure’s theories about language to film and wrote a semiotics of the cinema (Metz (1974) Film Language, trans. Michael Taylor (New York, Oxford University Press).

For Metz, cinematic discourse, like that of language, entails a source of articulation (“I”), a speaker, and a person being addressed (spoken to), a “You.”

But, as in the language system, this “I” and this “You” are structured in relation to one another in filmic discourse: “I” is the subject (like the linguistic subject in a sentence), and “You” is the object (like the object position in the sentence).


The rules and conventions that structure a particular discourse are called codes. Roland Barthes established a series of codes which literature uses (Barthes (1975) S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, London, Cape).

Film critics then began to apply these codes in film analysis. They took the concept of “code” to analyze how a film works.

Barthes is further important for film theory because he revealed that we live in a world comprised of a whole series of signifying systems of which language, while dominant, is only one of them.

Sign systems range from clothing, eating habits, sexual habits, to the construction of photographs, advertisements, film images.

For Barthes, film is a sign system that functions largely on the level of myth–it has lost its connection to any tangible reference, any object in the real world. (Barthes (1975) Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York, Hill & Wang).

A sign (for example, the sign “rose”) can be emptied of its denotative meaning and a new connotative meaning piled onto it. Thus ‘rose’ becomes a signifier for
“passion” (a signified), making a totally new sign, a sign on the second level.

On this secondary level of significance it is dominant culture that provides the new meanings, that drains original signs of their denotation and lifts them into a connotation that is culture specific, fitting a certain ideology, a certain set of values, beliefs. ways of seeing.

Barthes Analysis of Black Soldier with French Flag

Barthes, in Mythologies (p. 116), gives the example of a photograph in Paris Match of a black soldier saluting the French flag. On the denotative level, that is the meaning of the photo: the soldier is saluting the flag.  But on the secondary level of signification, that of culture, ideology, and connotation, we know that the meaning has to do with celebrating French colonialism.  we are to praise the fact that the colonized people love their governors and willingly fight for their cause.

Godard’s in the film Letter to Jane

The example that Godard uses in the film Letter to Jane of the Life front page photograph of Jane Fonda with the Vietnamese. This photograph is full of connotation (i.e. ideology); it is emptied of its denotative sign, a white woman with some Asian soldiers in a j jungle setting, and built up into the second level that Barthes calls “myth.”

Fonda, with connotations of both film star and radical activist, is in the front of the photograph large, important, and given status, while in the rear are the anonymous Vietnamese small, bunched together, with connotations of inscrutability, foreignness. the Other.

The photograph praises the liberality of Jane Fonda. with her position in American culture as sex object and star, in going to visit the “enemy,” who is racially stereotyped.

In cinema woman is likewise, as her actual self, a real woman, lifted onto the second level of connotation, myth, She is presented as what she represents for man, not in terms of what she actually signifies.

Her discourse (her meanings as she might produce them) is suppressed in favor of a discourse structured by patriarchy in which her real signification has been replaced by connotations that serve the needs of patriarchy.

The sentence “A woman is undressing,” or the image of a woman undressing, cannot remain at the denotative level of factual information, but immediately is raised to the level of connotations–her sexuality, her desirability, her nakedness.

She is immediately objectified in such a discourse, placed in terms of how she can be used for male gratification.

That is how our culture reads such sentences and images, although these meanings are presented as natural, as denotative, because the layering of cultural connotation is masked or hidden.

The task in examining Hollywood 9and other) films is to unmask the images, the sign of woman, to see how the meanings that underlie the codes of “femininity” have been created and sustained.


Studying the Image

American Beauty: Color of Red

Red is the color often associated with sensuality and sex, but also with risk, danger, blood and dying.

It’s the dramatic context that determines whether the red color is seductive or repellent.

In Sam Mendes’ 1999 Oscar winning American Beauty, Kevin Spacey plays an unhappily married middle-aged man, who escapes the boredom and banality of suburbia by fantasizing about a flirtatious teenager, friend of his daughter. He imagines her nude in the bath, covered with red roses petals, which function as a symbol of his aroused sexuality and reawakened masculinity.