On Particle-Waves, a Mediating Gaze and the Narrative Sequence


ABSTRACT: This paper will attempt to work through Gilberto Perez’s theory of film narrative, clarifying his distinction between drama and narrative as relevant to understanding the singular form of cinematic narration employed in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939). We will also be examining some key features of the implicit audio-visual (cinematic) narrator debate pertaining to claims I-IV. Rather than thinking of film as being of one primary form or another, one should recognize that a) such terms are primarily of functional value and should not be taken as actual properties of film, that b) broadening our terms to include drama—showing as means of enacting—and narrative—showing as means of telling (mediating for the film camera)—gives us more insight in talking about film and frees us from the ontological commitment of having to posit invisible, effaced narrators in film where there is clearly no evidence of them. As illustrated in the discussion of The Rules of the Game, whether a particular film has an audio-visual narrator depends on how the film uses a range of narrative strategies specific to film; an audio-visual medium capable of both showing and telling.

In his essay, The Narrative Sequence[1], Gilberto Perez rejects a priori arguments for the necessity of implicit, audio-visual (cinematic) narrators in film. Such necessity arguments usually suppose that:.

  1. Film functions solely as a narrative medium; i.e. that every film is a narration
  2. The narrative structure (the showing and telling of a story) is independent of its medium of representation: the same for film, literature, theater etc.
  3. There is undeniably a governing intelligence—one in place of and/ or in addition to explicit film narrators, i.e. character narrators or voice-over commentators—that, from a favored, inside point of view, directs our view through the fictional world on-screen and that
  4. This cinematic narrator should, even in cases where no narrative presence is obvious in the telling of the story of the film, be assumed to be radically effaced or suppressed,

For Perez, these assumptions stem from a general lack of distinction between the dual elements of drama and narrative working in film and the tendency to want to ascribe a literary paradigm of narration to film. In particular, case III) for the necessity of a cinematic narrator could be explained as either a) mistaking the hidden god-like, governing intelligence for the implied author or auteur inscribed in that film or b) mistaking dramatized showing (directing) or just showing as means of enacting (drama) for cinematic narration.

This is not to say that films do not use narrative techniques or that cinematic narrators never figure into the ontology of films but rather, that these conditions depend very much on how the camera mediates between us and the world of the film. In Renoir’s The Rules of the Game for example, Perez describes an audio-visual narrator who, being neither the actual or implied author, gives us a mediated account of a world that is clearly too large and too complex for any one observer to adequately survey. As with words in a narrative sequence, the mediating gaze’s order, subject and manner of visual capture implies a degree of choice: i.e. who to follow when amid the complex interlocking action simultaneously entering and leaving our field of view the night of the party at le Chesanye’s chateau? Ultimately, it is through our awareness of what is not on the screen and our realizing that we are only being shown so much that, according to Perez, a film like Renoir’s The Rules of the Game functions as a narrative with a distinct audio-visual cinematic narrator.

This paper will attempt to work through Perez’s theory of film narrative, clarifying his distinction between drama and narrative as relevant to understanding the singular form of cinematic narration employed in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. We will also be examining some key features of the implicit audio-visual (cinematic) narrator debate pertaining to claims I-IV noted above.

Perez’s theory of film narrative, as set forth in The Narrative Sequence, takes film to be a medium poised between drama and narrative, between enactment and telling or—in the context of the camera—between enactment and mediation. If a narrative is the telling of a story (something that happened, is imagined to have happened, is invented etc.) then a narrative sequence, by Perez’s terms, is a story told in a given order or succession. Such an arrangement is necessarily incomplete, open-ended and subject to the narrator’s arbitrary choice of sequence (beginning, middle and end) and content. Of course, the camera itself is not making any narrative choices about sequence and content (this task falls to the director, or camera “pointer” as we will see later). The camera is, however, mediating between us and the world it captures in its fictional “gaze,”[2] much like the words of a narrator mediate between us and the world they are telling us about.

On the distinction between drama and narrative in film, Perez is notably suspicious of any attempt at erecting positive distinctions between film forms (i.e. film as either drama or narrative) or of assigning as defining properties what are merely useful ways of talking about them.

“Why distinguish between drama and narrative in film, it may be asked, if film is both a dramatic and a narrative medium? For the same reason one distinguishes between a particle and a wave even if the kind of thing that skips around in quantum physics behaves like both” (64).

In citing the famous wave-particle duality paradigm from physics, Perez adds an important qualification to his endeavor and notably gives himself some conceptual leeway when it comes to positing cinematic narrators. By recognizing that films can work sometimes more like drama and sometimes more like narrative (or sometimes more like both) then, we end up with a less tidy but ultimately richer understanding of how the film works, without being wholly committed to the implications of a single conceptual model. Returning briefly to claim I) for the necessity of a cinematic narrator, the implication of the physics duality paradigm is that, because not all films are necessarily narrative, we need not posit invisible, effaced narrators where no such storytellers are present (claim IV) for the sake of adhering to the literary model of narration.

Given the strong theoretical links between literature and film and the large amount of work already done on narrative and forms of narrative communication/ the narrator in literary fiction, it is not surprising that film theory should use the literary model of narrative as its primary reference point. Of course, one necessarily runs into some theoretical problems when attempting to apply the conditions of literary narration (verbal only) to an audio-visual medium like film where both verbal and visual narrations are possible. One case of false opposition of terms worth mentioning here is the relationship between showing and telling in film. While showing and telling are usually opposed in literature (i.e. a scene shows and a summary tells), in film, showing is often the means of telling. Returning briefly now to Perez’s distinction between drama (enacting) and narrative (telling), it is worth noting that showing is not the same as dramatizing, since drama takes more than just seeing something to make a story feel present before our eyes. To be clear, we would say that narrative is showing as means of telling (visual representation used to unfold a story) and drama is showing as means of enacting (unfolding a story in the form of action).

As if issues with terminology weren’t enough, transposing the literary model of narration onto film also seems to encourage, according to Perez, the insistence for audio-visual narrators in all films. The audio-visual cinematic narrator in film is distinguished from explicit character narrators and voice-over/ omniscient commentators (also present in literary fiction), in that it is an implicit entity that visually guides us through the events on screen. This “cinematic narrator” is posited to be present regardless of whether the film has explicit narrators (in such cases it is said to be suppressed or effaced) and is assumed to be on the same ontological level as the characters and events it observes. Because the implied filmmaker or auteur would necessarily present the world of the film as a fiction (from the outside) it is argued, fictional cinematic narrators are necessary entities in films.

Looking first at claims I) that film functions solely as a narrative medium and II) that the narrative structure is independent of the medium of representation; the implication is that filmic narration cannot be structurally different from the narration in other mediums (literature, theater, dance, music, art etc.) Given that the defining features of literary narration are usually taken to be the defining features of narrative structure in general, claim II) is tantamount to saying that filmic narration cannot be structurally different from literary narration. Since it is generally accepted that literary fiction has at least two levels of narration[3]: the fictional narrative (the story) and, more relevant to our discussion, the fictional narration that presents the narrative as a series of actual events (the narrator), the implication is that all films must also have a fictional, cinematic narrator inside the world of the story (to make sense of the film as a “narrative” and perhaps to compensate for the fact that explicit filmic narrators are not always present). Ultimately, assumptions that a) there is some necessary, causal connection between the narration (telling) and the narrator (the agent who carries out the narration), b) this model somehow guarantees the presence of a narrator in every narrative and c) there is no remarkable difference between modes of narration among media that would warrant against such generalizations, do not seem at all obvious for either literature or film.[4] Though this is a vast oversimplification of the debate, the conclusion Perez wants to draw is that the exclusive use of the literary model of narration, without regard for the drama aspects also working in a particular film (claim I), will commit one to positing hidden, effaced narrators (claim IV) and confusing a range of dramatic and narrative strategies operating in that particular film.

Returning finally to the issue of necessary cinematic narrator and the implied author or auteur, let us look at claim III) that there is undeniably a governing intelligence—one in place of and/ or in addition to explicit film narrators such as character narrators or voice-over commentators—that, from a favored, inside point of view, directs our view through the fictional world on-screen, in reference to Gunning’s[5] quoted argument. In literary theory of narration at least, it is customary to distinguish between the author and the implied author of the work. Depending on how the work is written, the implied author may gives us a sense of his personality or character (which need not coincide with the traits of the real author) and/ or somehow make us aware of the construction of the work without necessarily detracting from our engagement in the story. Contrasting the implied author to the narrator, the implied author is the agent to whom we attribute the work/ fictional story while the narrator is, as noted earlier, a part of the work, an entity telling or showing us the events from within the world of the story. Carrying over this distinction to film, the implied author would coincide with the implied filmmaker, director or auteur of a film and the narrator would coincide with an implicit, audio-visual (cinematic) narrator.

The  “governing intelligence” that Gunning terms “narrator” in his discussion of D.W. Griffith’s works is, according to Perez, really meant to be the implied author or auteur of the films. Through decisions in staging, editing, cross-cutting, long shots, close-ups and other dramatic techniques, the director’s camera thus makes an action present on screen and directs our vision around the fictional world.  Even though Perez is clearly an auteurist, his rejection of necessary narrators does not require that one hold this view: as he puts it, “whether or not an implied author is inscribed in a film, whether or not this is the director, [it] is not a matter of narration” (62). In other words, the showing as means of enacting or dramatization on screen may very well be achieved by the work of the implied author, director, filmmaker (or the unified creative agency responsible in highly collaborative projects) without necessitating explicit or implicit narrators. In response to the claim that a fictional narrator entity is necessary to tell a fictional story as actual, Perez’s own formulation suggests that, at least for dramatic film, an actual author can choose to show us fictional events as actual without the added use of fictional narration. Lastly, by merely noting that we experience film as “a work,” or an intentional product of human intelligence and making, Gunning has not really justified in his argument why this should necessarily apply to cinematic narrators over other creative agents of film.

Perez notes Renoir’s camera style in The Rules of the Game (1939) for it ability to unsettle our expectations of where our attention should be directed and for providing a clear instance of an autonomous, mediating gaze (cinematic narrator) working in narrative film. Usually, the “mediating gaze” of the film camera is indistinguishable and subservient to the drama; doing little more than unfolding the plot, the characters’ actions, perceptions and associated circumstances without a distinct point of view. In the case of the dramatic camera then, we may readily assume that what we are being shown is the best possible view of the action. In the case of Renoir’s narrative camera however, we immediately note a distinctive, autonomous gaze that, by its own way of seeing and rendering things on screen, creates a discrepancy between what we know is happening or is claiming our interest in the world of the film and the extent of it that we are actually being shown on screen. Using long takes and a greater depth of field for example, Renoir’s narrative camera (the mediating gaze of our audio-visual narrator) makes us especially aware of what is taking place just outside our field of vision and in the background. Much like the real world, what happens there can be just as important (if not more so) than what we do manage to see center screen.  As with our working thesis of narrative, the sense is that any overview of events is necessarily partial, fragmented and incomplete: just one individual’s account of the world, one’s choice of what to tell/ show us.

Renoir’s chosen audio-visual narrator gives us the sense of one struggling under the perceptual limitations any embodied observer would face in trying to keep up with the guests and staff at the La Colinière country estate. Like an “explorer who hasn’t gone ahead to scout the territory for us” (91), the audio-visual narrator seems to be making things out as he goes along and is often just as surprised as the audience by the sudden turn of events. This especially reflected by the manner in which he comes upon characters—by spotting them at a distance, obscured by furniture, watching them leave the frame and then suddenly re-enter it in close-up, interrupting and then redirecting his attention from one to the other’s plot as they appear, etc.: all as if by happenstance. Recalling Perez’s assertion that a narrative camera “imitates a gaze,” it is worth noting how this narrative camera achieves this gesture of looking.

In the famous party sequence at the chateau, complete with an amateur stage performance and une danse macabre for the entertainment of guests and neighbors, we spot the estate gamekeeper Schumacher looking for his wife Lisette (maid of the lady of the estate; Christine de la Chesnaye) whom we have just seen kissing Marceau (apprehended rabbit poacher-turned-house servant). Beginning at one doorway, the visual narrator follows him on his search, allowing him to become obscured behind walls and then picking him up again at the next doorway. During one of those intervals, the camera stumbles upon another couple: Christine and guest St. Aubin on a couch in a corner (we know she has recently discovered her husband Robert de la Chesnaye’s infidelity with mutual friend and guest Geneviève, but were given no indication of her having liked St. Aubin until this point; she must be with him on a whim). Surprised as we are, the visual narrator pauses us briefly to look at the odd pair before picking up Schumacher again at the final doorway, where he’s found Lisette and Marceau watching the masquerade performance along with the other guests. After a brief pause on this love triangle, the visual narrator strays a little to the side, only to come upon a sulking Andre Jurieau (the pilot and national hero who has recently completed a solo trans-Atlantic flight and is also desperately in love with Christine). Following Jurieau’s angry gaze back in the opposite direction, the narrator retraces the doorway space, where we catch a glimpse of Marceau sneaking away and Schumacher keeping Lisette from following him, only to come upon Christine and St. Aubin again on the other side. Now feeling Jurieau’s accusatory gaze, Christine and St. Aubin swiftly get up, walking out of the room and out of the camera frame. The camera’s moving and pausing and moving again in this sequence is something we would clearly associate with the act of looking. What differentiates this distinctive narrative view from say, a dramatic point of view shot is that, while the latter gives us a shared glimpse of someone’s consciousness for that given moment or merely imitates the perspective from a given point in space (anyone else standing there would theoretically be able to see the same thing), the narrator’s POV gives us a “compass” for understanding the world of the story.

Taking up this scene again in terms of the narrator’s POV being a “compass” for understanding the story, the fact that we are shown the two plots simultaneously in one uninterrupted sequence (not counting of course the minor developments/ subplots also going on with the servants and other minor guests in the background at the same time) allows us to make parallels between characters that are not immediately obvious but nevertheless important in the context of the story.  Though we can attribute the choice of making this sequence one continuous shot to the director Renoir, we may just as well attribute this distinct view to the visual narrator who, presumably out of curiosity, chose to follow the two love triangles simultaneously. Watching Schumacher, Jurieau, Marceau, St. Aubin, Lisette and Christine, we naturally make a parallel between the two female characters. Though we know Lisette to be flirtatious by nature and uncaring for her husband (she prefers Schumacher to stay in the country while she stays in town as Christine’s maid), Christine’s uncharacteristically taking up with stranger St. Aubin tells us something about her disillusioned conversion from the naive Austrian, unacquainted with the ways of French society (i.e. taking romance seriously), to just another society woman following the rules of the game. Similarly, one would not readily compare Schumacher, the cuckolded gamekeeper, with Jurieau the ridiculous aviator in pursuit of someone else’s wife. But because they never really interact throughout the film, this particular sequence is one of the few instances that allows us to understand why it is that their destinies do come together toward the end of the film (Schumacher ends up shooting Jurieau dead by case of mistaken identity). Unlike the other two men, Schumacher and Jurieau labor under the illusion that they are sincere. They are in effect the only ones that play by the rules, just not the same rules as the others.

Finally, looking at another key sequence where the visual narrator actually takes up another character’s POV (one of a few instances in the film), we are still able to recognize an autonomous gaze with unmistakable insight into the world of the story. Taking up Berthelin’s binoculars with Christine to look at a squirrel on a nearby tree during the hunt, we hear that his instrument is in fact so refined that an observer could “live every detail of the squirrel’s life with it.” As we hear these words, Christine perhaps, magnifies the shiny-eyed squirrel to the point where it is no longer recognizable. Though Christine seems to think nothing of it, we as viewers (courtesy of the narrator’s visual emphasis) are struck by how the small creature’s experience and sensibilities are so alien from our own and how, upon closer scrutiny, all we have done by zooming in is to further distance ourselves from any possibility of understanding the details of that squirrel’s life and habitat. Significantly, it is with these very same binoculars that Christine spies on her husband embracing Geneviève and confirms the adultery that was common knowledge to all but herself. Such focused scrutiny again keeps her from understanding the full context of the situation—that Robert was at that point ending the affair for his wife’s sake—and sets in motion the series of chaotic pairings and elopements at the party.

True to the thesis of narrative in film, the audio-visual narrator chosen by Renoir to mediate between us and the world of The Rules of the Game provides a distinct, perceptive account of the action with noticeable choices in gestures/ manner of looking, subjects of interest, and points of visual emphasis. Unlike Antonioni’s completely alienated, “estranged”[6] visual narrator that deliberately moves counter to the emotions enacted on screen or gives us views that are noticeably incongruous with the tone of the scene, Renoir’s visual-narrator is enough of an outsider from the drama to be bewildered and unable to anticipate character actions and motives—thus supplying the noticeable tension between the action and the picture. Still, the visual narrator is invested enough in the unfolding of the story that he consistently strives to keep the progressively complex and chaotic action under surveillance. The implication is that, regardless of how great the depth of field or how fine the optic focus on a world this large and this complex, one cannot presume to give any real, complete, or accurate account of a world so large and so complex (unless one is working with drama). As in the case of the squirrel, to do so would only create further distortion. Though narrative accounts are the product of one individual’s arbitrary choice of what to show and can be of questionable epistemic focus, tainted by bias, fragmentary, and incomplete, by making us aware of what one is not shown and by assembling choice fragments of specific events as in The Rules of the Game, such narratives do reveal a great deal.

In positing a veritable audio-visual narrator in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Perez is not contradicting his general theory of film narrative, which, as per the wave-particle duality paradigm of physics, asserts that there is much use in distinguishing between the dual drama and narrative aspects working in film. Rather than thinking of film as being of one primary form or another, or, even worse, of becoming entrenched in the theories of the literary model for film and being forced to posit necessary cinematic narrators for every film, one should recognize that a) such terms are primarily of functional value and should not be taken as actual properties of film, that b) broadening our terms to include drama—showing as means of enacting—and narrative—showing as means of telling (mediating for the film camera)—gives us more insight in talking about film and frees us from the ontological commitment of having to posit invisible, effaced narrators in film[7] where there is clearly no evidence of them. As illustrated in the discussion of The Rules of the Game, whether a particular film has an audio-visual narrator depends on how the film uses a range of narrative strategies specific to film; an audio-visual medium capable of both showing and telling.


[1] Perez, Gilberto. “The Narrative Sequence.” The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998. pp. 50-91, 422-429.

[2] Strictly speaking, the camera does not embody or achieve a “gaze” but rather, “enacts the fiction of a perceiving eye” (75) or imitates a gaze/ point of view with seeming consciousness or perception.

[3] Wilson, George, Le Grand Imagier Steps Out: The Primitive Basis of Film Narration (2006).

[4] Though in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Bordwell criticizes the need to ascribe a narrator to every film sequence (noted by Perez, p.61) and even gives an “agent-free” account of film narration, he is stuck with his dual endorsement of a version of claim II) *see above.  To deny that films always have narrators would thus be to imply that film narrative is structurally different from other types of narrative (mainly literary narrative), which would contradict his current position.

[5] In D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (1961), Gunning allegedly confuses the implied author with the narrator.

[6] Perez gives an extensive discussion of Antonioni’s work, particularly his film Cronaca di un Amore (1950), which is supposed to be an instance of what Perez calls “estranged vision” or an alienation effect in narration (90-1).

[7] On the grounds that all films are narrative and all mediums of narrative operate like literary narrative.

Natalie Rodriguez (’10) is a Philosophy and Biochemistry major at University of Southern California.

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