What is… a dénouement?

The dénouement is the last part of the film’s narrative structure, often also known as the conclusion. It is usually the final part of a five act structure – introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. Its primary function is to wrap up the story following the main events of the film, solving conflicts and offering a release of tension for the viewer.

The term, which is unsurprisingly French, comes from the Old French desnouer, meaning “to untie”, which itself comes from nodus, the Latin for “knot”. This quite nicely gives the image of the film’s plot becoming unravelled as it concludes.

Most films have a dénouement and it’s not too difficult to identify it, although sometimes it may be very brief. Red leaving for the island where he meets Andy in The Shawkshank Redemption is a good example of dénouement, nicely tying the story up, as seen below. Other examples include the Simba reclaiming Pride Rock in The Lion King and Ripley putting herself and her cat into stasis in Alien.

Not all films have a dénouement, however. Some films simply cut to the credits as soon as the climax finishes, an example of which is The Blair Witch Project. This can either have excellent dramatic effect, possibly leaving the ending and following events ambiguous or it can leave the film feeling cut short and incomplete. Films may also dispense with any kind of dénouement (or have a very short one) if they are part of a series of films, with a longer dénouement likely at the end of the last film. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example has become known for having an incredibly long dénouement at the end of The Return of the King.

Are there any dénouements that stand out in your opinion? Let me know in the comments below.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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25 thoughts on “What is… a dénouement?

  1. Smash says:

    The example of Red meeting up with Andy is a perfect choice for the purpose of illustrating this lesson. It is a perfect ending (dénouement) to a perfect film.

    I saw The Return of the King in theatres with my dad and the wrap went on sooo long that my dad started whispering little jokes to me, making me laugh, which was upsetting for a few of the Tolkien geeks sitting nearby.

  2. Spielberg loves resolutions. I think of Schindler’s List and Schindler leaves, the Jews freed, and he puts on fifteen more minutes of what comes later. This time it didn’t bother me, because I liked the technique of bringing the real people with their actors and placing a rock on Schindler’s grave. Other Spielberg films—A.I. for instance–the story ends when David “dies” in the helicopter under the ocean. Then came another half an hour. It’s charming really. Spielberg simply cannot end a story with a sad ending.

    • Still not seen Schindler’s List :) but you’re right about Spielberg. He makes big movies that are pretty family orientated most of the time, and that’s where the denouement really helps so that it wraps it up nicely for everyone.

  3. Zoë says:

    Great work again! These posts are truly interesting! I would have to really sit and think on one that stood out more than the rest…

  4. So *that’s* what it is! But seriously, nice features you have here Chris on the ‘tools of the trade’ so to speak.

  5. Ooh! Good idea! I like this post very much :)

  6. table9mutant says:

    I love these educational posts. :-) Good job!

  7. ruth says:

    Another awesome ‘What is..’ entry! I LOVE the word ‘dénouement,’ and it’s always nice to know where that term comes from. Great stuff as always, Chris!

  8. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I love a great denouement.

  9. JustMeMike says:

    Thanks for that great scene. You know, I’ve seen Shawshank dozens of times, and have used Red’s I hope speech in a few of my posts.I can almost recite it by heart.

    And yet, to this day, that ending, can still produce a tear to roll down a cheek on my face. Marvelous bit of film making. And even though I never associated that scene with the term denoument – I thank you heartily for putting it before me once more.

  10. Great post, as always! :)

  11. Wow great to know! Interesting post, its true ‘you learn something new everyday’! Thanks :)

  12. Alex Withrow says:

    My favorite film dénouement is the conclusion to my favorite film, Taxi Driver. That film’s final scene gets a lot of crap for being seemingly superfluous, but I couldn’t disagree more. I love that Travis shows very little interest (romantic or otherwise) in Betsy, but really, the purpose of the scene is for its final shot of Travis, as he darts a look at himself in the rearview mirror. He looks at himself in such a purposeful way, in order to remind himself who really he is. Which, of course, the rest of us will never know.

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