An analysis of the elements of mise-en-scène in a scene from Hereditary (2018) and how these elements convey meaning.

The film Hereditary (2018) is a horror film that is about grief and how a family struggles to process that grief. “The Dinner Scene” that will be analysed occurs at a family dinner after Charlie, Annie and Steve’s daughter, is killed in an accident involving her older brother Peter. The elements of mise-en-scene analysed will show a family falling apart under the weight of their grief and the blame they cast on each other. The accident occurred because Annie forced Charlie to go to a party with Peter to prevent him from drinking underage and to be vindictive, as Annie and Peter do not have a healthy relationship. Charlie goes into anaphylactic shock at the party and Peter puts her in the family car he borrowed, then races her to the hospital. On the way, Charlie puts her head out of the window gasping for air as Peter swerves to avoid an animal in the road when she is decapitated as her head hits a telegraph pole. In shock, Peter drives home and goes to bed. The next day Annie finds Charlie’s headless body in the car; this is shown purely by Peter’s reactions to Annie’s screaming. This essay will analyse the framing, editing, set design, wardrobe, lighting, colour, performance and blocking of the family dinner where tensions explode.

The framing and editing of this scene create tension and show each character’s current state and position within their family. Ari Aster (the Director), for the most
part, uses longer lenses with a shallow depth of field to blur the background and keep the family members the focus of the scene, i.e. he draws the audience’s attention to the characters more sharply. Aster starts the scene relatively tightly framed rather than starting wide and moving in, this starts the audience in a place of tension. The audience is brought in close to see the character’s behaviour towards each other and through the use of single shots, how disconnected they are. To build this tension slowly, Aster focuses on one character at a time and their reactions with the pacing slow at first then building into quick cuts as Annie finally explodes at her son Peter. Finally, Aster moves into a wide shot to end the scene because the tension has exploded and everything the characters were feeling has been said. In total, there are 46 cuts and approximately 10 unique shots in this scene. The composition of these shots shows the current state of the characters and how different they are to each other; Annie is framed with lots of set dressing/props in the foreground and the wall behind her is relatively close, this shows that Annie’s pain and grief are closer to the surface and making her feel suffocated. This is in contrast to Peter, who has a deeper background and fewer items in the foreground giving the frame an appearance of more space. This shows Peter’s grief and pain are there but not so overwhelming that he can’t pretend everything is fine. Lastly, Steve has the emptiest frame and the furthest background. This is representative of Steve’s character as the one coping the best with his grief so that he can support his wife and son.

The set design elements in the background very clearly represent a family home with pictures, furniture, knick-knacks and furnishings. However, the longer lens and shallow focus of the camera make it the darkest part of the frame. By separating the set design so drastically from the characters and making it less visible but still full, Aster is showing the audience that this was once a family that regularly spent time together in this space. This family is now torn apart by grief and blame, therefore does not spend much time together. This is contrasted with the food and crockery filling the dining table, a meal that Steve prepared. This represents Steve’s attempt at keeping his family together by putting extra effort into preparing a meal they can all share, however, Peter is the only one that seems to notice this as Annie is consumed by her grief and anger that is clearly bubbling to the surface. There are several ways Aster shows that Annie is offside with the rest of the family, one of which is through the character’s wardrobe. Peter and Steve are wearing very similar outfits with plain dark coloured shirts, a white undershirt, dark pants and sneakers; they are closer to each other than Annie is to them and Steve is more sympathetic towards his son than to Annie. Annie’s outfit is the opposite, she is wearing a light coloured and striped jacket, a darker top underneath, light blue pants and loafers. This makes Annie stand out as the outsider to their relationship and shows her disconnect with her husband and son.

Annie’s opposition to the family and each family member’s current state of mind are also reflected in the unique lighting choices for each character. Using a large practical key light from above Aster gives each character a distinct look; Annie is lit the least flattering with the light above creating hard shadows under her eyes and showing every line in her face. This harsh lighting shows Annie’s pain and amplifies her rage when she screams at Peter, but also makes her look more menacing than Peter or Steve. Peter is also cast in shadow albeit softer, the contrast making Peter look more sympathetic in his grief without the same menace as his mother Annie; they are both suffering but Peter is still only a teenager. Steve is the most evenly lit throughout the scene, again the opposite of Annie and demonstrating his disconnection from her and closer relationship to his son. The overhead light also serves another purpose, when Annie suddenly stands to berate Peter she is closer to the light creating a “hot spot” that amplifies her inward feelings of rage outwards physically and harder shadows in the lines of her face; she is exhausted and ill with her pain. The warm key light above and lack of lighting in the background adds to the feeling that the family room is disused due to their disconnection, guilt and blame of each other. Aster’s use of practical lighting grounds the scene in realism where the colour palette of warm green and unnatural blue reflects the mood of the scene and the overall themes of the film. Aster has chosen a warm light with a tint of green for the key light and other practical lights dotted around the house, and unnatural blues in the background coming from the moon outside. Interior house lights are typically warm tungsten/orange, Aster manipulates this feeling of home and comfort by adding a tint of green to the warm lighting. This touch of green adds a sickly quality to a traditionally safe space, family dinner, reflecting everyone experiencing their own grief and guilt that has torn them apart. The combination of a warm green key light makes the unnatural moonlight stand out from the background, where most of the set is in shadow. The unnatural blue light complements the warm tones and puts light in the set where it creates silhouettes and shadows in the disused family room.

Lastly, the blocking of this scene is key to understanding the family’s struggle to process their grief causing the tension and detachment from each other. There are at least three shots that show this in the blocking; the first shot of the scene shows Annie on the opposite side to Peter and Steve who appear on the same side of the table (even though they physically aren’t), shot 9 (cut 33) shows Annie on opposing sides with Steve caught in the middle but more sympathetic to his son by sitting closer to him and shot 10 (cut 46) reinforces the same. These three shots are from different sides of the room and vary in framing but they all show that Annie is different and disconnected from the rest of her family. The actors give three distinct performances in this scene, showing they are each processing the pain of their grief differently, which is highlighted by the single shots of their reactions to Annie’s outburst being primarily used throughout this part of the scene. Annie is blind unbridled rage and grief, she says what she is feeling to the discomfort of everyone including the audience, she moves suddenly and often unable to hold anything back. Peter is frozen in the shock and hurt by what his mother says to him shrinking down when she begins her outburst and slightly flinching when Annie screams about Charlie being dead. Peter’s grief has been internalised and he is unable to let it out, unlike Annie, his way of coping is to shift his own guilt to his mother. Steve’s grief is shown differently to Peters’, while he is also immobilised by Annie’s outburst, he looks between her and his son unable to stop what is happening. Steve looks at Annie with anger and pain but is sympathetic and comforting to Peter, yet unable to externalise his own pain as the patriarch that must try to keep the family together.

This essay has explored how, the Director, Ari Aster used framing, editing, set design, wardrobe, lighting, colour, performance and blocking of “The Dinner Scene” in Hereditary to show a family disintegrating as they struggle to process the grief of Charlie’s death, an accident that their son Peter was involved in. The framing and editing show each character’s position and disconnection within the family, while the set design complements this with what is allowed to be shown in that frame; i.e. a disused family room and a dinner that suffocates Annie within the frame. In addition, the contrasted wardrobe between Annie, Peter and Steve show they are on opposing sides and not in good standing with each other. The lighting and colour chosen enhances the tension and exposes the feeling of grief unique to each character, while the blocking and performance physicalise how each character deals with this grief differently.

The 46 Cuts – Reference Images