In a movie, the flashback , or flashback , whose literary equivalent is the analepsis , is script writing process which, within the narrative continuity, introduced an action (in the form of a plane , a sequence , or a scene ) that took place chronologically before the current action.

This process is most often used to provide the viewer with the necessary elements to understand the behavior of the main characters but can also be used for poetic, humorous purposes, etc.


In 1901, the French filmmaker Ferdinand Zecca uses for the first time this literary process for a film, History of a crime . He tells how a thief is guilty of murdering a cashier and how he is remorseful, confessing to his crime for being sentenced to the guillotine. “The day before his execution, the condemned man is deeply asleep in his cell. On the wall above his bunk, appear successively three memories 1  “At first they are two reminiscences of her childhood that seems rather happy in the company of her parents. The third evocation is that of a recent past since we see him playing the game and lose, facing a cheater, and spot a well-dressed man, showing a busy scholarship (spectators can recognize the murdered cashier) ; he discreetly follows his future victim. “The last memory fades and disappears, the flashback has given the illusion of going back in time, but the story continues to move forward, the door of the cell opens, letting a priest and five men in frock coats, stern, which awaken the prisoner and led him to his last penalty 2 . ”

“Ferdinand Zecca intuitively discovers the fundamental rule that will be required to build a flashback to cinema, he leans his own two extremely powerful moments of his story. He chooses not to show the trial and the death sentence, but he insists on the awareness of the murderer and his remorse when he discovers at the morgue the corpse of his victim. This scene is the first pillar. The second pillar is the entry of officials into the cell to drive the convict to the guillotine. The flashback, an irruption of the past into the present, is thus a way found by Zecca to enter the head of his character … before it falls 3  ! ”

Flashbacks appeal to the public and are often used in the cinema of the years 1910-1920, so much so that the producers are worried about it. A book is published in the United States in 1911, written by a certain Epes Winthrop Sargent: Technique of “photoplay” 4 , 5 , intended to warn filmmakers, writers or directors, against the misuse of what they then call the “visions” . They are criticized for interrupting “the narrative flow” , “the spectator spends all his time trying to put the facts in order . ” The author recommends separating the actions and the visions by fades or “cartons” ( intertitles ,leaders in English), flashbacks must be framed, marked, signaled by one method or another.

In 1912, the film Le Passant , directed by Oscar Apfel , for the Edison Manufacturing Company, features a flashback that is set up by a tracking shot on the protagonist, a poor old man invited to participate in the lunch of a youth circle affluent people as anonymous passerby and fun curiosity. This innovative camera movement is the first “psychological traveling”, as will be called later this type of tracking shot, which opens the confidence of a character. The old man begins the story of his life, which is the story of his decay. Crossfade. Flashback: the man is the age of his guests, like them today he loudly celebrates his youth with strong drinks. It is besides the alcohol which will be fatal to him later, and will make that he will lose his job and his fiancée. The story in flashback ends with a tracking shot where we find the old passerby and his hosts he leaves after having well distracted. He notices from a painting that he knows, it is the portrait of his ex-wife: the young rich man who opened his door to him is none other than the son he could have had of her, and who Of course, he does not know anything about him. “Fallen man can only laugh bitterly about this new twist of fate and return without further explanation to the anonymity of the street 6 . ”

Modern uses

Flashbacks are not improvised during the shooting or, even less, during the editing, but appear as such at the writing of the scenario. Also, the main difficulty for the screenwriter, and subsequently for the director, is to make the viewer understand that the scene is located in the past. They have several ways to achieve this: the characteristic costume of an ancient mode as in The Godfather e  part , places (eg the outline of a building, completed in the main story), characters (for example younger, or presence of a character deceased since), the voice-over of the narrator as in The day rises… The effect can also be emphasized by a technical transition such as the transition to blur between the two stories, as in The Bewitched , directed by Vincente Minnelli , or a different treatment of photography, as in The Great Meaulnes , realized by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco . The transition from black to color and vice versa can be used, as did Otto Preminger in Hello Sadness .

Most often, like Ferdinand Zecca’s film, the flashback revolves around a strong element of the story, which is the link between the main time and an earlier time; then, thanks to a second strong element, which is often a variation of the first, the main narrative returns.

But it can also be the main body of the story, the later time being only one element of setting up the previous story, a kind of introduction and stooges. For example: On the road to Madison , where the children of Francesca discover, after her death, that she had once had a love affair with a stranger passing by. The first twelve minutes of the film describe the children, become adults, reading the notary, the search for personal documents, the discovery of the confession of Francesca … The story of this love, unique hitch to the wedding dress of Francesca, is then evoked in a flashback that lasts nearly an hour and a half, before a return to the present that shows us the emotion of his two children at the reading of this revelation.

Several detective series use flashbacks from the start. The emblematic example is the set of series Experts , which use it to show the course of the crime, to visualize the statements of witnesses or to illustrate certain scientific explanations. Other police series that also use flashback include: FBI: Missing , Cold Case: Classified Cases or RIS scientific police .

In the series Desperate Housewives , flashback is constantly used, as well to clarify details of the story, and especially to take advantage of what the omniscient narrator, Mary-Alice Young, knows all about the existence of the living, only to disassemble a scene in several sequences that are not presented to the editing in their chronological order.

Some films

Many films use the flashback technique: see the dedicated category (opposite).


  • Yannick Mouren, The Flashback, Analysis and History , Paris, Armand Colin, 2005, ( ISBN  978-2-20026-910-4 ) , 194 pages
  • (in) Maureen Turim, Flashback in film , New York, Routledge, 1989, 278 pages


  1. ↑ Marie-France Briselance and Jean-Claude Morin , film grammar , Paris, New World ,, 588  p. ( ISBN  978-2-84736-458-3 ) , p.  106.
  2. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  107.
  3. ↑ Idem.
  4. ↑ ( in ) Winthrop Sargent Epes, The Technique of the Photoplay , New York, The Moving Picture World, 1911, 184 pages.
  5. ↑ ( in ) Winthrop Sargent Epes, The Technique of the Photoplay , Charleston, Bibliobazaar, 2013 ( ISBN  9780559402418 ) .
  6. ↑ Briselance and Morin 2010 , p.  397-398.

Leave a Comment