Cinema and Media Studies Christian Metz
Matthew Flisfeder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0286


Christian Metz was a French film theorist, writing mainly in the 1960s and the 1970s. Metz is most well-known for his application of structuralist and semiotic methods to the analysis of film language and film form, as well as for his concept of the “imaginary signifier,” which applied Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts to the analysis of film spectatorship. Metz’s writing on semiotics helped to popularize this method in film studies, alongside his peers in other humanities disciplines, such as Roland Barthes. His writing has been influential in both European and North American contexts, with much of his work translated into English and reprinted in four books: Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (1974), Language and Cinema (1974), The Imaginary Signifier (1982), and Impersonal Enunciation, or the Place of Film (2016). Metz’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies dedicated to film studies and film theory, and he is often associated with influencing English film theories that appeared in the British journal Screen, sometimes referred to as “Screen Theory.” For his writing on the concept of the “imaginary signifier,” he has sometimes been classified as an “apparatus theorist,” alongside other influential French film scholars, such as Jean-Louis Baudry. The entries will be of interest to scholars seeking deeper understandings of the role that Metz played in developing semiotic methods in the film analysis, and its relationship to psychoanalytic interpretations of cinematic spectatorship. This article includes articles authored by Metz, but also pieces that critically review Metz’s work and its impact on film studies and film theory. The sections are ordered to provide a guideline for moving from Metz’s work on structuralism and semiotics, to show his progression in venturing toward psychoanalytic approaches—a logical move considering the influence of Jacques Lacan, who used structuralist methods and semiotics to reinterpret Freud. It is here that we can also see Metz’s influence in bringing, not only structuralist methods, but Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts as well, into the field of film theory, especially at the moment when film studies programs began to be formalized in North American and European universities. The author would like to thank Rebecca Schur and Taylor Fenn for their time and assistance in preparing this article.


Readers and scholars unfamiliar with Metz would do well to begin with general overviews of his works. Buckland 2017 provides a brief overview of Metz, his use of linguistic, structuralist, and psychoanalytic concepts, and some of the concepts that Metz himself coined. Deane 2016 highlights Metz’s contribution to film theory and attends to some of the contradictions in Metz’s use of structural linguistics for film analysis. Rodowick 2014 includes an extensive look at Metz’s influence on film theory and his pioneering role in using structuralist methods. The edited collection Tröhler and Kirsten 2018 examines Metz’s ongoing relevance and influence on film studies and his development of phenomenological structuralism. The eulogy Altman, et al. 1993, written shortly after Metz’s death, gives a clear indication of the impact he and his work have had on contemporary film and media theory. The entry on Metz in Lechte 1994 provides a more detailed description of the Metz canon, including descriptions of concepts for which he is most well-known, including his analysis of the “grande syntagmatique” and the “imaginary signifier.” Although Metz’s impact was advanced first in the French context in the 1960s, later English translations of his work began to gain traction in the early 1970s. Tomaselli 1995, also in the wake of Metz’s death, recounts the impact that Metz’s work has had in the Anglo-Saxon context of film studies, and describes how his conceptual approach will endure beyond film theory.

  • Altman, Rick, Dudley Andrew, and Lauren Rabinovitz. “In memoriam [Christian Metz].” Iris: Revue de Theorie de l’Lmage et du Son 16 (1993): 2.

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    This article is a brief eulogy of Christian Metz. The authors speak to how Metz shaped cinema studies at large and touched each of them personally. There is a note directing readers to more content on Metz: an essay by Roger Odin in this volume of Iris (no. 16), and the entirety of Iris no. 10.

  • Buckland, Warren. “A Furious Exactitude: An Overview of Christian Metz’s Film Theory.” In Conversations with Christian Metz: Selected Interviews on Film Theory (1970–1991). Edited by Warren Buckland and Daniel Fairfax, 13–32. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1zkjxzm.5Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In this introductory chapter, Warren Buckland offers a brief overview of Metz as both a writer and a researcher, discussing some of the key concepts that influenced his work, including linguistics, semiology, and psychoanalysis, as well as some of the concepts that Metz himself generated, such as the “imaginary signifier.”

  • Deane, Cormac. “Translator’s Introduction.” In Impersonal Enunciation, or The Place of Film. Translated by Cormac Deane. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

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    In the translator’s introduction to Metz’s Impersonal Enunciation, Deane highlights Metz’s contributions to film theory, and discusses how this book differs from Metz’s previous work. Specifically, Deane discusses how Metz’s later insights arose from the contradictory position that the semiology of language failed to formulate a film semiology, while also showing that such a project still works.

  • Lechte, John. “Christian Metz.” In Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Post-modernity. By John Lechte, 89–94. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

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    This chapter in John Lechte’s book is an encyclopedic entry briefing the major works of Christian Metz. The chapter includes a short biographical introduction and is organized into sections on Metz’s ideas like “langue” and “langage,” the impression of reality, enunciation, “la grande syntagmatique,” the imaginary signifier, and film as dream.

  • Rodowick, D. N. Elegy for Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674726086Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Rodowick’s book looks at the place of cinema studies in 21st-century humanities, and examines the meaning of theory for the arts. The book includes a lengthy discussion of Metz, his influence on studies of film language and semiotics, and his pioneering role in using structuralist methodologies.

  • Tomaselli, Keyan G. “The Impact of Christian Metz in Anglo-Saxon Cinema Studies: A Personal View.” S – European Journal for Semiotic Studies 7.1–2 (1995): 259–273.

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    This paper is a literature review of responses to Metz’s English translated work since 1974, bookended by reflections on how Metz has influenced Keyan Tomaselli personally. Tomaselli narrates a contentious debate around the place of film semiology in Anglo-Saxon cinema studies, but concludes that Metz’s legacy endures in the philosophical credibility and in the rigor that his work conferred on the field.

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

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    This book brings together a collection of contributors who present close analyses of Metz’s writings and their theoretical positions. The chapters included reflect on Metz’s ongoing influence in film studies, his creation of numerous categories and concepts that are still used for film analysis, and his development of phenomenological structuralism.

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