The Symbiotic Relationship Between Semiotics and Cinema

By  · Published on December 1st, 2016

Eyes Wide Shut and knowing what you aren’t told.

At its most basic, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their meanings and interpretations. If you want to get a little more complicated, semiotic theory espouses the idea that there’s no actual relationship between the signifier and the signified. This means that the word “dog,” the signifier, doesn’t actually have anything to do with your four-legged furry friend, the signified, it’s just an interpretation we’ve come up with. When you read that word in quotations above, your mind interpreted the image of a dog because that is what you’ve been trained to do by language. To go even deeper, semiotic theory breaks down signifiers or signs into three sub-classifications: the icon (something that represents an object by resembling it, like the nondescript male and female figures on restroom signs), the index (something that has a logical and causal relationship with what it represents, how smoke indicates fire because it is a product of fire), and the symbol (which refutes both the icon and the index by not resembling or relating to its object in any logical way, how a heart sign – which doesn’t resemble an actual heart – is used to signify love.)

Essentially then, semiotics allows us to make unspoken leaps, to infer things we aren’t told, which makes it a very helpful theory indeed for filmmakers, whose first tenet should always be “show, don’t tell.” To prove the efficacy of semiotics on-screen, Film in the Making has selected the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s swan song Eyes Wide Shut, which takes place in the opulent Manhattan apartment of Bill and Alice Harford as they prepare for a night out. Though in this scene the dialogue is banal and unimportant, how we interpret what we’re seeing— of the Harford’s apartment, themselves, their lifestyle, their personal priorities – fills in blanks of character and tone more thoroughly and quicker than dialogue ever could.

Strap on your thinking cap for this one, it’s next-level but presented very concisely and in a straightforward manner. Plus, you should take any chance you get to dive below the surface of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s most enigmatic and labyrinthine film after 2001: A Space Odyssey. Enjoy.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist