10 great films featuring a film within the film

Meta is murder: as Víctor Erice’s Close Your Eyes arrives in cinemas, we tie ourselves in knots thinking about movies about fictional movies.

11 April 2024

By Georgina Guthrie

Close Your Eyes (2023)

With its potential for meta jokes and irony, the film-within-a-film concept (a kind of mise-en-abyme, as it’s known in academic circles) feels like a modern invention. In reality, the technique of placing an image within itself stretches back to medieval times, predating its notable appearance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which famously features a play-within-a-play.

D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film Those Awful Hats is one of (if not the) first on-screen examples, offering a headwear-rich commentary on cinema etiquette delivered in a taut three minutes. Nineteen years later, Buster Keaton expanded the concept with The Cameraman (1928), a later-career triumph that expertly skewers the industry’s preoccupation with sensationalism while throwing a knowing wink at its own reflection.

Since the 1920s, the concept has been increasingly used as a transgressive comment on the film industry and the creative process, giving audiences a glimpse behind the scenes. Unsurprisingly, it’s also something of a mainstay in the horror genre, providing ample opportunity for directors to subvert expectations, play with fractured identities and deliver thrills via found footage creations. In 1997, Scream 2 offered horror audiences some meta storytelling with ‘Stab’, a film-within-the-film based on the first in the franchise. 2021’s Censor melds reality and fantasy via a fictional film called ‘Don’t Go in the Church’, while Antrum (2018) dedicates most of its runtime to a ‘cursed’ internal film with a short documentary prelude by way of introduction.

Close Your Eyes, Víctor Erice’s latest, draws from this richly subversive tradition by opening with a film-within-a-film called ‘The Farewell Gaze’. To celebrate the Spanish auteur’s return after a 30-year hiatus, here are 10 more mise-en-abyme examples featuring overlapping narratives that deconstruct filmmaking, identity, viewership and the power of the moving image.

Close Your Eyes is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 12 April.

The Cameraman (1928)

Directors: Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton

The Cameraman (1928)

Tragically, this was one of Buster’s final feature-length films as director before he lost creative control of his career and alcoholism stole his agility and ethereal good looks. But what a glorious film it is. It’s the tale of a cameraman (Keaton) who transitions from tintype photographer to a neophyte filmmaker, as well as a razor-sharp meta-satire about movie-making itself.

There are two film-within-a-film moments. The first sees Keaton have his avant-garde creations mocked by studio executives. The second – unintentionally captured by a monkey (it’ll make sense when you watch it) – features footage of the Tong war and a regatta complete with boat explosion and heroics. The latter film secures him professional and romantic success, but this is not your average underdog yarn: the cameraman’s attempts to break into filmmaking unpick the absurdities of the industry and its preoccupation with delivering spectacle, while simultaneously auto-critiquing its own artistic existence. And if that hasn’t piqued your interest, it also features a chimp carrying a machine gun, making it a truly matchless entry on this list.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Director: Preston Sturges

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Preston Sturges wrote Sullivan’s Travels in response to what he considered the preachiness of contemporary comedies. Showing he could walk the walk, he wrote and directed one of the finest of his career: a wickedly funny satire with romance, adventure and a meta-narrative on Hollywood’s limitations all rolled into one.

We begin with a film-within-a-film: the climactic end of an action movie that serves as a thematic blueprint for the kind of socially important drama (“with a little sex in it”) John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) longs to make. He describes his vision: a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title pinched by the Coen brothers for their 2000 film of the same name). He disguises himself as a tramp and sets off to learn about poverty, only to about-turn after an emotional denouement featuring a second embedded film.

The film’s strengths lie in its more provocative questions around who gets to tell certain kinds of stories. But perhaps its crowning glory rests with the costume department, who managed to disguise a heavily pregnant Veronica Lake, who didn’t disclose the fact until after she’d signed her contractual dotted line.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director: Agnès Varda

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Charlie Chaplin once said: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot” – which is a running theme in Varda’s immaculate second feature, following Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a gorgeous pop singer killing time as she waits on hospital test results. Wandering the streets, she becomes an object of gaze as peering faces and reflections trap her in static beauty like a butterfly pinned to a board. After a chance encounter with a soldier waiting to return to the Algerian war, Cléo’s focus shifts from introspective micro to macro, allowing her to simultaneously meet and transcend her fate.

As well as being about a woman, it’s a portrait of Paris in the 1960s, and a masterclass in French New Wave style. Voiceovers, impromptu songs, philosophical ruminations and a film-within-a-film featuring no other than Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina add to the cinematic riches. Offering a moment of playful artifice, said embedded flick also hinges on a clever perspective shift, where tragedy turns to comedy, ordaining Cléo’s nascent transformation while doubly hinting at the cinema’s potential for change within the viewer.

Le Mépris (1963) 

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Le Mépris (1963)

Filmed in stunning Technicolor, Le Mépris is a visual treat with glittering Italian Riviera scenery, a sunny palette of primaries, and, of course, its bodacious star Brigitte Bardot – the physical charms of whom are anything but underused. Don’t be fooled by the visual sumptuousness, though. This is a story of artistic compromise and faded love that ends in bitter tragedy.

Following a relatively conventional plot (for Godard), it’s an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s existential novel Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon). Michel Piccoli stars as Paul Javal, a playwright who struggles with declining relations between himself and Camille (Bardot), the demands of cinematic legend Fritz Lang (played by himself), and a churlish American producer (Jack Palance) as Javal edits the script for an adaptation of The Odyssey. It’s a meta-commentary on filmmaking and the perennial battle between art’s purity and commercial appeal, featuring a film-within-a-film that magnifies the rocky relationship between its protagonists. Homer’s epic tale of journey and return offers an ironic counterpoint to Paul’s and Camille’s own journey – one marked by estrangement rather than reunion.

Day for Night (1973)

Director: François Truffaut

Day for Night (1973)

Silent swashbuckler The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the biblical epic in Hail, Caesar! (2016) tend to be the go-to choice for films about filmmaking featuring a film-within-a-film – but Day for Night offers an equally strong entry to the genre.

Revealing the tricks of the trade, François Truffaut’s insider portrait of filmmaking centres around the making of a film called Meet Pamela. With François playing himself trying to keep the project from going off the rails, the set becomes a hotbed of human drama as ageing icons, alcoholic divas and fiery young stars tussle against the backdrop of the clichéd melodrama. Affairs and ‘amour non partagé’ (unreturned love) fuel most of the mayhem, culminating in one woman making off with a stuntman while her melancholic ex (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the child star of Les Quatre Cents Coups) eases his pain by bedding the leading lady.

As with later Truffaut offerings, it errs towards the sentimental, but even the most cynical viewers will be hard pressed to resist the charms of this unabashed celebration of cinema. Highlights include an unruly kitten, Jean-Pierre begging for ‘whorehouse’ money, and Georges Delerue’s ‘Le Grand Choral’ – a soaring Handel-inspired theme that also featured in Wes Anderson’s Day for Night parody for American Express. Talk about meta.

The Player (1992)

Director: Robert Altman

The Player (1992)

Full of classic Robert Altman touches, including a polyphonic soundtrack and a sprawling story that stops just shy of chaos, The Player offers one of the most biting satires of Hollywood around. From its self-consciously meta eight-minute opening shot to dozens of celebrity cameos (65 to be precise), it’s a film within a film (within a film) that plays with genre, melding ‘movies about movie-making’ with classic crime fiction tropes. The result is a subversive, layered take on the Hollywood machine and a sly dig at viewership itself. No-one escapes unscathed.

The plot centres on Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a selfish studio exec who accidentally murders a screenwriter. He becomes the prime suspect in the case, initiating a goose chase between him, his stalker and an FBI agent. Meanwhile ‘Habeas Corpus’, the film within the film, acts as a critique of the industry’s tendency to prioritise marketability over artistic integrity while serving as a metaphor for Mill’s own moral compromises. In an additional twist of wry Altman-branded humour, the director gets us to side with the studio slimeball, lampooning what, as critic A.O. Scott for the New York Times eloquently suggests, is our own “endless attraction to power,” success and vacuously happy endings in the process.

Matinee (1993)

Director: Joe Dante

Matinee (1993)

Set in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis, the story follows young Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton) and his brother as they swap the horrors of nuclear war for the lurid thrills of ‘Mant!’, the film’s satirical in-world creature feature. The film’s producer, a William Castle-esque showman named Woolsey (an exquisitely cast John Goodman), uses the crisis to heighten the movie’s scares, exploiting local controversies and fitting cinema seats with electric shockers in a nod to Castle’s 1959 horror The Tingler, which employed similar theatrics.

Matinee was never a box-office hit, but it found favour with the critics thanks to its witty meta-plot and esoteric humour, not to mention its loving evocation of mid-century Americana. Steeped in movie lore, it’s an adoring homage to atomic-age exploitation cinema, where nuclear paranoia fed into cinematic narratives and vice-versa. Similarly, ‘Mant!’ merges real-world fears with fictional ones, blurring the line between reality and gleeful movie artifice.

Irma Vep (1996)

Director: Olivier Assayas

Irma Vep (1996)

Irma Vep (an anagram of ‘vampire’) follows movie star Maggie Cheung (playing herself), cast as a burglar-spy in a film remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires (1915). For reasons unexplained, the leading lady’s catsuit is updated to latex, a visually stunning but sonically indiscreet burglar outfit sourced from a local sex shop. A strange directorial choice perhaps – but no worse than choosing a star who’s running three days late and unable to speak a word of French.

As the production spirals out of control, Maggie navigates the blurred lines between character and self, leading to a nocturnal escapade mirroring her role as life becomes art. The film swoops into a surreal finale, and, as Cheung departs, the remnants of the movie project flicker into a hallucinatory, expressionistic montage as chaotic as its creation.

It’s a hypnotically odd film full of extended dialogue non-sequiturs that’s ultimately about an ageing director who fails to capture his leading lady’s image. The final edit of the film-within-the-film is simply a scratched-over montage: a clash between two artists destined to never find a point of meeting.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Director: Satoshi Kon

Perfect Blue (1997)

Satoshi Kon’s work often deals with the blurred boundaries between physique and psyche, digital society and the physical world. Perfect Blue is his impressive horror-inflected directorial debut, one of a trio of his films covering similar ground, including 2001’s Millennium Actress and Paprika in 2006.

The labyrinthine plot, such as it is, follows Mima Kirigoe’s harrowing transition from J-pop idol to actress. Her decision alienates fans and attracts the malicious attention of a stalker, propelling her into a psychological maelstrom. As Mima grapples with identity, the hazy lines between reality and the loss of self in the pursuit of art lead to a descent into psychosis. Some of its internet-heavy themes feel antiquated now, but the underlying digital anxieties around exposure and identity are as potent as ever. As the film increasingly splinters, the film-within-a-film mingles with dreams, mirror images and double identities, and culminates in a chilling examination of fame and the dark side of fan culture, while questioning the nature of reality itself.

My Winnipeg (2007)

Director: Guy Maddin

My Winnipeg (2007)

Accurately described by Guy Maddin as a “docu-fantasia”, which melds “personal history, civic tragedy, and mystical hypothesising”, My Winnipeg turns the act of filmmaking into a means of liberation for the author-narrator-character from “the coldest, most soporific city on earth”. Through a montage of memories, apocryphal city lore, and staged re-enactments with actors playing his family, Maddin succumbs to the city’s allure afresh, from its mythic underground rivers and spectral racehorse tragedy, to its status as the sleepwalking capital of the world.

In Sullivan’s Travels, the film’s earnest yet misguided director keeps returning to Hollywood (and comedies), as if drawn back by some unseen force. Similarly, My Winnipeg serves as both a personal exorcism and a broader commentary on the inescapable gravity of home. In both films, filmmaking functions as a means of rewriting a life’s narrative, while simultaneously revealing the task to be little more than a fool’s errand.