Reading Images in Film: Reading Response 9/26

In Kress and VanLeeuwen’s “Reading Images,” they discuss three systems which, together, connect the “representational and interactive meanings” of an image (in other words, the signified and the signifier) (183):

1.) Information value. This placement of elements (participants and syntagms that relate them to each other and to the viewer) endows them with the specific informational values attached to the various ‘zones’ of the image: left and right, top and bottom, centre and margin.

2.) Salience. The elements (participants as well as representational and interactive syntagms), are made to attract the viewer’s attention to different degrees, as realized by such factors as placement in the foreground or background, relative size, contrasts in tonal value (or colour), differences in sharpness, etc.

3.) Framing. The presence of absence of framing devices (realized by elements which create dividing lines, or by actual frame lines) disconnects of connects elements of the image, signifying that they belong or do not belong together in some sense.

(Kress and VanLeeuwen 183)

These three systems of composition are present in all visual forms, from single images of photography to “composite visuals” (those containing “text and image”). One form in which visual aesthetic is crucial to the establishment of meaning is film, and this establishment is created through cinematography and mise-en-scene.

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), mise-en-scene contributes significantly to narrative, and this is demonstrated in one seemingly simplistic frame during a scene in which Pu Yi and his wife, Elizabeth, talk at the coronation ball held after Pu Yi becomes the emperor of Manchukuo. Presented at a neutral angle within a medium shot, the two sit on opposite sides of a relatively loose frame compacted only by the image’s relatively dense texture and its multi-faceted composition. This includes the curtains behind the two characters, the pot of flowers between them, and the mirror which separates them to break the frame evenly into thirds as well as add to the background that which the emperor and empress look upon in their relative staging positions slightly turned towards one another and slightly towards the camera before them.

Screen shot 2013-09-26 at 10.08.50 AM

That which is most visually striking, constitutes the dominant contrast, and is thus the most “salient” in the frame is the empress, Elizabeth. Sitting on the right side of the picture, she faces a light which emanates from the left to reflect brightly in her sequin-covered silver gown and across her face and bare neckline, offering her great definition against the dark curtains behind her. Though the picture is shot with low-key lighting, the empress contrasts significantly with her surroundings and seems to possess a soft, glowing aura (perhaps achieved through the use of a soft-focus filter) reminiscent of other, earlier styles of film in which such a technique is employed to give the images of lead female characters a delicate yet powerful magnetism (as is often demonstrated by the femme fatale in early noir films). This technique is used in this frame, it would seem, to further attract the viewer’s eye to Elizabeth, whose visual, paradigmatic dominance works to emphasize that of her role in the scene’s narrative – a role which is complemented by the additional implications created by several subsidiary contrasts in the frame.

The lighting in this shot is reminiscent of that in Rembrandt’s Double Portrait of Mennonite Preacher Anslo and his Wife (shown below), which Kress and VanLeeuwen reference to demonstrate how light is typically in the left of the frame or the area of the ‘Given’ (“the taken for granted, the now/present”) while darkness usually fills the area of the ‘New’ (the unknown, the future) or the right of the frame.


Pu Yi, seated in a chair to the left of Elizabeth and attired in his Mǎnzhōuguó uniform, creates one of these subsidiary contrasts as the light which shines from the left faintly illuminates only the side of his face, the yellow sash and many medals which adorn his chest, and the yellow curtain which hangs behind him. It is not only the shadow on his face and lack of contrast between his navy uniform and the darkness behind him which make Pu Yi visually subordinate to his wife but also the exposure of the curtain behind him. With this exposure, Pu Yi, clothed much in the same color as the curtain, appears to almost blend in with the background so that Elizabeth, displayed in stark contrast with the shadows behind her, becomes exceedingly prominent.

Separating Pu Yi and Elizabeth are two more subsidiary contrasts, including the bouquet of daffodils Elizabeth eats from moments before as well as a mirror that displays the rest of the ballroom’s inhabitants. The poisonous flowers reflect very little light but still generate a weighty presence between the emperor and empress, signifying, perhaps, Elizabeth’s addiction to opium and the romantic detachment it has caused between she and her husband. This works to complement the narrative when, earlier in the scene, Elizabeth asks Pu Yi why he does not make love to her anymore, and he responds quite simply that he is repulsed by her addiction. Hanging behind the bouquet, a mirror, framed perfectly between the emperor and empress, captures that which they look upon during the shot: a dimly lit ballroom filled with the shuffling figures of the other party guests, their features unlit and their bodies only vague silhouettes against the shadowed walls behind them. Like the daffodils, the mirror distinctly separates Pu Yi and Elizabeth and most likely represents another significant obstruction in their relationship. Pu Yi, content with his newly established position as the emperor of Manchukuo, scoffs at his wife’s insistence that Amakasu, Pu Yi’s Japanese patron, is the most powerful man in Manchukuo. Elizabeth informs her husband that he is blind to the reality of his situation (as is suggested by the ambiguity of the mirror’s occupants) and insinuates he is merely attempting to return to the same powerless role he occupied years before as the emperor of China (though it is now only of the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo). The way in which Pu Yi seems to blend in with the yellow curtain behind him seems to comment on the way in which he conforms to the expectations and desires of the Japanese as well as the way in which he feeds his own desire to maintain the sense of majesty and elevated rank he grew up with and which was bequeathed to him as an emperor of traditional, yellow China – an Emperor of Ten Thousand Years. This connects back to the narrative again as Elizabeth sarcastically raises a toast to her husband, exclaiming, “Ten thousand years to His Majesty the Emperor!” before departing to her room and leaving her husband, who, in sporting the Imperial yellow, ironically believes himself to possess the power of consciousness it signifies, to the attention of those who only wish to encourage his oblivion.


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