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Guidelines on Film Commentary

  • The aim of the commentary exercise is to allow the reader (or examiner) to assess how far you have developed an awareness of the various different ingredients, technical or aesthetic, that are a fundamental part of the medium of film in general and how far, when faced with a specific film text, you are able to apply that knowledge to developing a particular, detailed interpretation of that film.  You will also be expected, where relevant, to show some knowledge of the major trends in French film-making in general and the extent to which this particular film may (or may not) be seen as representative of that broader context.
  • First Rule: Be selective!  Since you will not be able to mention everything of interest or importance in the film within the specified word limit (between 2,000 and 2,500 words), you will have to begin by isolating those elements in the film which are worthy of special note.  What you need to identify first of all are the particular dominant characteristics which, in your view, contribute most to the workings of this particular film.  In some cases, for instance, this might be the director's mise-en-scene (or even just one particular element of the mise-en-scene, like the lighting, or acting style, or décor, say); in other instances it will be the camerawork (the length of shots, for instance, or the use of particular camera angles); and in still other films it will be the editing style adopted by the director and his or her team.  In any case, we are not expecting you to mention everything in the film, but rather to develop an interpretation of the film based on its most salient cinematographic characteristics.  Once you've selected the particular aspects of the film that interest you (and they may not be the same ones as another viewer of the same film finds important!), pick out one or two or three relevant or appropriate sequences in the film that, in your view, illustrate those aspects at work.  It's often a good idea to pay particular attention to sequences like beginnings and endings, or to climactic moments in the plot.  The limit of 2,000–2,500 words is quite severe, so you can't hope to cover everything.  Better a commentary that says something precise about one or two scenes than one that dots all over the film trying to include everything but ends up remaining superficial.
  • Second Rule: Be as precise and detailed as you can!  When you've found what sequence or sequences you want to concentrate on, describe it or them as precisely and in as much detail as you can, using the proper technical vocabulary where relevant.  But don't just describe the film.  You need to analyse the particular function of your chosen sequence or sequences within the film as a whole, and to articulate clearly in what ways it (or they) is (or are) typical (or sometimes atypical) of the film as a whole.  Some plot exposition may be necessary but keep this at the absolute minimum, and summarise ruthlessly wherever you can; don't just tell the reader what happens in the film.  And if you cite extracts from the dialogue, make sure you give this in the original French and not the English sub-titles!
  • Third Rule: Present a coherent argument!  Try to make connections between the particular characteristics and details you find striking and what you feel the film as a whole is trying to achieve.  To do this, you need to try to relate particular filmic details to the movie's general thematic concerns, and show in what specific ways the film articulates to the viewer the specific themes or concerns  that, in your view, it is aiming to convey.  What the examiners are looking for is candidates' ability to make overall sense of the film and to show they understand how different cinematographic elements interact to produce particular meanings. 
  • Fourth Rule: Be clear and concise! Summarise your findings clearly at the end of your commentary.  And remember, if you have used any secondary literature (books or articles), give precise references to the material you have consulted in your bibliography at the end.  There's no shame involved in acknowledging the sources of some of your ideas; indeed it shows you are taking the exercise seriously.  Better to acknowledge a source than to run the risk of being accused of plagiarism!