The effects of mise en abyme in an opening scene (LS-EU-87)

This course aims to allow students to improve their general knowledge in a fun and active way. Out of context, a course on Baroque can be boring. But when they understand that Baroque is a vision of the world and that it is ultimately very modern, then they can see and question the very modern nature of it. Parallels can be drawn with our time when all traditional frames of thought are being challenged.

Students can understand that different art forms maintain a dialogue that knows no boundaries, whether temporal or geographical. The process of mise en abyme used in the 17th and 21st centuries proves it.


One objective is to begin a reflexion for an essay on the link between fiction and reality and on the essential part that a reader or a spectator plays in the creative process.

Another objective is to examine a set of questions. Does fiction reproduce or reveal reality? Does it offer it a loophole? Is fiction created to transform reality better? Is fiction creating another reality?

Interpretation and reality

When we teach literature, we often face two questions.

  • The first is about interpretation. How do you know what the author meant? A novel, a play or a film can sometimes just be a good story to them.
  • The other is about the link between reality and fiction. Most of the pupils think that they are radically different, even separated. 

How can they be taught to understand that a novel is also a dialogue between an author who sometimes answers another author, and sometimes discusses with us? How to make them understand that a fictional work is a reflexion about reality, a way to represent it, to explain it, or to understand it?

Also, teachers are often asked about reflexivity or mise en abyme in European literature. Which usually generates a swirl of confusion. It can even prevent the reader from feeling the comfort of diving into a story, which shows the paradoxical link between fiction and reality.

In fact, by proposing a fiction within the fiction (an embedded story), the legibility of the narration is broken.

Comparaison of paintings

The simplest way to help the students is to confront them to paintings which uses this formal technique. This is why pupils will be asked to analyse three paintings; Arnolfini portraiture by Jan Van Eyck, then the Menines by Velasquez and, as a conclusion, and the triple portrait by Norman Rockwell which synthesises the whole reflexion about the mise en abyme. Rockwell appears painting himself holding his palette. Just as many artists before he did, including Poussin in 1650, Manet in 1879, or Picasso in 1938. However, in this painting, N. Rockwell includes references to Johannes Grump, Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso.

This formal technique (mise en abyme) allows raising the question of the visibility of reality. By representing himself in his creating act, it forces us to wonder about the creative process. It also points at what we usually cannot see in reality, namely what is out of range – or out of frame.

Study of two contemporary cinematographic pieces

Then, students will work on two contemporary cinematographic pieces that also use reflexivity: Dogville by Lars von Trier and Cold Blood by Jaco von Dormael. What is interesting in these works is that the mise en abyme is used at the very beginning of the story, as if it was a proposal to the spectators, a kind of program. The disturbing originality of these opening scenes prevent the spectators from a comfortable passivity… This formal creative technique catches the attention.

In the same way, when an author chooses to use the reflexivity by inserting a fiction within the fiction (embedded story), the legibility of the narration is broken. Once the process of the mise en abyme and its stakes are understood, we will question its use in an opening scene. That the opening of work begins in this way is always significant.

The teacher will analyse an opening chapter or a scene. This moment of narration has been part of the logic of captatio benevolentiae since Antiquity: it is made to awaken the interest of the reader or the viewer and to give them clues to understand the plot. The set in these openings is of particular interest, as it creates a specific and complicated relationship with fiction in many works. In fact, by using reflexivity or mise en abyme, it is not reduced to a simple background that would allow the audience to place the story in time and space but rather to highlight its artificial dimension. Why? What are the stakes of such a choice? How to interpret them?

Cyrano de Bergerac

Finally, a literary masterpiece will be analysed (Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand). The students will have to use the newly-learned tools to examine the first act, which is a vertiginous multi-level mise en abyme. Why did Edmond Rostand choose to begin his play with another play acted in a yet mythical theatre? Why did he decide to set it in the XVIIth century, thereby making an apparent reference to the Baroque movement? More broadly, how does reality reflect its numerous facets, and what meanings should we give them?

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand is a particularly interesting choice because it opens on a theatrical scenery that induces a vertiginous reflexive dimension to mislead the spectator. This opening is confusing but may conclude an implicit pact between the playwright and the audience. Cyrano de Bergerac use the stage as a rehearsal area where an actor attempts to perform his role. Subsequently, a new dimension is created, as an actor performs in the stalls.

To understand this work better, the teacher will ask the students to analyse the opening scenes of two modern works:

1) Dogville by Lars von Trier. The opening scene deliberately rejects realism and offers a high-angle shot of a minimalist a theatre stage drawn in chalk. The distinction between cinema and drama, therefore somehow disappears. Europeana website: an interview with actress Nicole Kidman.

2) Cold Blood by Jaco von Dormael. The film opens on a drama piece that shows how all the special effects make the film possible. The final result is projected on the second level of the stage. The play is thus the making of a film set…

What do these exhibition scenes have in common? They are all surprising and original, but what does such a choice bring to the work? The fictional dimension of the work is highlighted, and the backgrounds turned inside out as if to claim that it does not seek to mimic reality. But is it so?

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