“Mise en Abyme” is a French term derived from heraldry, and literally means “placed into abyss”. The term has developed a number of particular senses in modern criticism since it was picked up from heraldry by the French author André Gide.
A common sense of the phrase is the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, then seeing as a result an infinite reproduction of one’s image. Another is the Droste effect, in which a picture appears within itself, in a place where a similar picture would realistically be expected to appear. That is named after the 1904 Droste cocoa package, which depicts a woman holding a tray bearing a Droste cocoa package, which bears a smaller version of her image. The phrase has several other meanings, however, in the realms of the creative arts and literary theory. In Western art history, “Mise en Abyme” is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
The film-within-a-film is an example of Mise en Abyme. The film being made within the film refers, through its mise en scène, to the real film being made. The spectator sees film equipment, stars getting ready for the take, crew sorting out the various directorial needs. The narrative of the film within the film may directly reflect the one in the real film.
In film, the meaning of Mise en Abyme is similar to the artistic definition, but also includes the idea of a “dream within a dream”. For example, a character awakens from a dream and later discovers that he is still dreaming. Activities similar to dreaming, such as remembering, unconsciousness and virtual reality, also are described as Mise en Abyme.
Mise en Abyme can also refer to realities within realities, or framing narrative. Films trying to show the process of thinking and remembering can also be classified as Mise en Abyme.