What is Juxtaposition in Film?

In a previous article about Soviet montage, I mentioned how Lev Kulshov stitched a series of images together to portray an idea. This technique contributed to the use of montages in modern cinema.

This montage technique relies on the idea of juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition generally means to compare things, usually by placing them side by side. In film, juxtaposition roughly sticks to the same concept. It is used to compare and contrast. 

That may not necessarily be achieved through a side-to-side breakdown in film. 

Juxtaposition can be portrayed most commonly through mise en scene, music, and contrasting character qualities.

Let’s take an example from the 1975-hit thriller Jaws to shed more light. In the scene where the white shark circles, the movie switches between scenes of lightheartedness on the beach and danger lurking in the water. 

🦈 Here’s the famous beach scene from this movie classic:

On one hand, the viewers get a feeling of impending doom and panic. On the other, we feel the carefree joy of the people at the beach. Juxtaposition in this case is leveraged to heighten the suspense in a scene. 

At other times, it has been used to pass societal subtext or simply for hilarious/ironical purposes.

For more on understanding juxtaposition in film, we’ll drive the point home with examples of how juxtaposition is pulled off in movies.

Juxtaposition in modern cinema

Visual juxtaposition through mise en scene

Mise en scene is a French phrase that means to set the stage. It entails the design of the set, and basically everything within camera view. Actors, lighting, design, props, and all else in front of the lenses are considered mise en scene. 

This method can be used to bring out visual juxtaposition in film. Many great talented screenwriters have made use of it to depict contrast over the years.

The above scene from Jaws is an excellent example of this technique.

The movie Frozen also wonderfully utilizes mise en scene to this effect. Specifically, the scene where Olaf, the snowman, sings about “doing whatever snow does in summer.”

🌞 The backdrop entails a warm summer afternoon:

As he sings, we are taken through a montage of the snowman wandering in spring fields and lying on a sandy beach under the scorching heat. He drinks lemonade, seemingly enjoys his time out in the seasonal heat, and even gets some tanning time in. He even enjoys a swim, drinks some hot cocoa, and ends the day in a warm bath.

❓ According to him, what does snow do in the summer? 

It basks in the heat, drinks lemonade, and gets tans. But that’s not how things work. Snowmen or people generally leave in the colder parts of the world. They need subzero temperatures to survive. 

Snow doesn’t thrive in summer heat contrarily to our carefree snowman’s school of thought. It would melt fast and there would be no more of him left within minutes.

“I’m guessing you don’t have much experience with heat,” Kristoff tells Olaf as he zones out into his imagination of what summer is like.

It appears he does not.

Using characters for comparison or contrast

Juxtaposition can also be brought out by the sharp contrast of characters in a film. While one might portray certain qualities, the opposing character embodies the opposite traits.

A great example of character juxtaposition can be found in the 2017 live-action adaption of the popular fairytale, Beauty and the Beast. 

The plot is about a beautiful young girl, Belle, who makes a pact with the beast of the castle. The latter has kidnapped her father so the deal is in exchange for his freedom.

Once a handsome prince turned into a hideous creature by a sorcerer, the two get closer despite their obvious differences.

Belle is a headstrong village girl renowned for her beauty. She is charming, friendly, easy on the eye, witty, and the fancy of every man.

Unfortunately, the beast is the exact opposite.

He is hideous, lonely, and terrifying. Few would dare defy him. He spends most of his days in isolation because of his appearance before he meets Belle. In his mind, he is ugly and unworthy of love so he shuts out from the world. 

His unsavory mannerism, e.g. he is rude and seemingly uncaring, reflects how he thinks people perceive him because of how he looks. Even before he became the beast, the prince was cruel and selfish.

His actions lead him into his current predicament when he turns away a desperate old beggar, who turns out to be an enchantress in disguise.

Breathtaking, kind, and selfless, Belle is the sharp contrast of the beast. We see the differences play out within the film, however, the subtext delves beyond the superficial. 

It teaches us to value inner beauty as opposed to judging a book by its cover. On the outside, the beast appears not-too-pleasing-to look at and is filled with hatred. Inwardly though, as the story unfolds, we get to see a more gentle and loving side of him.

Juxtaposition through music

The 1970 epic war film Apocalypse Now offers a great example of how filmmakers can pull off juxtaposition with the right music over the action.

It specifically occurs in the “ride of the Valkyries” scene, featuring the famous (or infamous?) helicopter raid. The music is played off an actual prop that the soldiers broadcast over the village they’re about to bomb. 

A surprise attack may be out the window but it’s a proven scare tactic. At least, according to one of the soldiers anyway.

As the music roars to life, we are taken through shots of the military might of the attacking forces. The sky is littered with their helicopters, each filled to the brim with powerful artillery and soldiers armed to the teeth. 

From that immense presence and ammunition, the audience expects one helluva fight.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unaware of the impending danger, we see the defenseless Vietnamese village moments before they attack. There isn’t a large army on standby anticipating the raid. There are no large troops or artillery gathering in response, only a handful of soldiers. 

The American forces decimate the village with ease, probably killing both civilians and enemy forces without discrimination.

Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays on to ironic effect in the background as the bombs ring all around. The grand music serves to mock the amount of power the invading forces implore to conquer a small village.

Like was all that really necessary? 

Maybe a simple ground attack would have been enough. Talk about overreacting.

Use juxtaposition in film for subtext

I’ve warned before about on-the-nose dialogue.

It also applies to plot. If you’re a filmmaker and you have a moral message to the world, avoid being on-the-nose or direct in your intentions. The last thing the audience wants —

❌ To be lectured on film on what’s right or wrong!

Instead, use juxtaposition to show irony (i.e., helicopters bombing a simple village with grandiose music in the background). Or play on people’s prejudices, like ugly faces mean ugly characters (i.e., Belle and beastly prince).

Juxtaposition is an excellent way to build subtext to your screenplay or movie. It helps make the characters and plot points richer and entertaining.

And that’s what movies are all about in the end… entertainment.

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