Literary and Critical Theory Christian Metz
Warren Buckland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0115


The film theory of Christian Metz (b. 1931–d. 1993) forms part of the structuralist revolution of ideas that challenged the phenomenology prevalent in France in the 1950s. Metz developed a structuralist (or its derivative, semiological) theory of film in the 1960s and inaugurated a groundbreaking theory and method of analysis that transformed film into a semiological object, in which film’s specificity was no longer perceived in terms of surface sensory properties or a conscious aesthetic experience. Instead, Metz reconceived filmic specificity, this most sensory of objects, as a type of signification—as the manifestation of a more fundamental, nonobservable, underlying finite abstract system of codes. To conceive film as signification involves a shift in perspective, from the study of film as a consciously experienced, continuous sensory object to the study of the abstract underlying system of discrete (or discontinuous) codes that generates and organizes those experiences. In terms of the history of ideas, semiology parallels the epistemology of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who argued that an underlying transcendental system of conceptual categories in the mind structures and makes possible human experience. Semiology’s innovation was to replace this underlying transcendental system with a historically and culturally contingent system of underlying codes. In the 1970s Metz addressed the limitations of structuralism and semiology by adopting a post-structuralist framework premised on theories of enunciation, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and phenomenology. For Metz, enunciation (which emphasizes signs of the speaker and receiver in a text) and psychoanalysis (which emphasizes traces of the unconscious in a text) enabled him to rethink his study of codes as secondary systems of signification, which are underpinned and driven by more-fundamental primary processes of signification (unconscious drives, fantasy, and dream logic). In his final work in the early 1990s, Metz developed a theory of filmic enunciation focused on the impersonal traces of a film’s production; that is, enunciative markers that are reflexive, that refer back only to the film itself.


Christian Metz’s film theory was assessed and celebrated throughout his career. Key milestones include a double issue of the influential journal Screen (Willemen 1973), a colloquium held at the Cerisy Cultural Centre in 1989 and published as a special issue of the journal Iris (Marie 1990), the publication of a film studies textbook (Stam, et al. 1992) that places Metz’s work at the center, a conference held at the University of Zurich in 2013 (Tröhler and Kirsten 2018), and the translation and publication of his interviews (Buckland and Fairfax 2017). Film scholars developed film semiology in new directions in the 1980s by combining it with cognitive science, pragmatics, and transformational generative grammar. Key texts of this “cognitive semiotics” of film are outlined in Buckland 2000. More recently, Traversa 2017 considers how Metz’s film theory has been reassessed through the concept of mediatization.

  • Buckland, Warren. The Cognitive Semiotics of Film. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613142

    This monograph presents an overview of “post-Metzian” film theory—the work of film scholars who extend Metz’s ideas (especially film semiology) via cognitive science and new theories of language. Post-Metzian theory includes transformational grammar (Colin 1995, cited under Film Narrative), enunciation (Casetti 1998, cited under Theories of Enunciation), and cognitive-pragmatic theories of meaning (Odin 1994, cited under Film Semiology).

  • Buckland, Warren, and Daniel Fairfax, eds. Conversations with Christian Metz: Selected Interviews on Film Theory (1970–1991). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

    In an informal interview format, Metz presents his abstract system of concepts (drawn from linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, and narratology) and explains their importance in establishing film theory as an academic discipline. Many of the interviews appear in English for the first time.

  • Marie, Michel, ed. Special Issue: Christian Metz et la théorie du cinéma / Christian Metz and Film Theory. Iris 10 (1990).

    This special issue of the bilingual journal Iris comprises presentations from an international conference on the work of Metz (in French and English). The volume is divided into four sections, each reflecting Metz’s work in each area: “Esthétiques” (especially aesthetics of the image), “Discours” (the influence of semiology and linguistics), “Savoirs” (the epistemology of Metz’s theories), and “Imaginaires” (charting the influence of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis).

  • Stam, Robert, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Beyond. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

    A clear and accessible introduction to key film theory concepts that derive from linguistics, psychoanalysis, narratology, and theories of intertextuality. Metz’s film theory is central to each section of the book.

  • Traversa, Oscar. “Christian Metz and the Mediatization.” ESSACHESS—Journal for Communication Studies 10.1 (2017): 239–253.

    In an informative essay, Traversa presents the trajectory of Metz’s film theory—from phenomenology to film semiology to psychoanalytic theory and finally to impersonal enunciation. Traversa discusses then-recent reassessments of Metz’s theory by Dominique Chateau and Martin Lefebvre, Charlotte Bouchez and Omar Hachemi, and Eliseo Verón (especially his use of the concept of mediatization).

  • Tröhler, Margrit, and Guido Kirsten, eds. Christian Metz and the Codes of Cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018.

    This edited collection presents nineteen chapters celebrating Metz’s work. In the introduction, Tröhler offers an overview of Metz’s significance to film studies: “[This book] is first of all intended as a tribute to a pioneering scholar, the father of modern film theory, who initiated several generations of scholars . . . not just into the semiology of film but into a more general theoretical and methodological thinking about cinema” (p. 17).

  • Willemen, Paul, ed. Special Issue: Cinema Semiotics and the Work of Christian Metz. Screen 14.1–2 (1973).

    This special double issue is historically significant for translating some of Metz’s work into English for the first time, as well as for introducing his film semiology to Anglo-American readers, via essays by Stephen Heath, Michel Cegerra, and the editors of Cinéthique. It also contains two introductions to semiology (by Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov).

  • Wulff, Hans J., and Ludger Kaczmarek, comps. “Christian Metz: A Bibliography.” Hochschulschriftenserver, Universität Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

    A comprehensive bibliography of Christian Metz’s books and articles, including translations and reviews of his work.

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