Mise-en-scène is originally a theatrical term that means "staging". When applied to film, the term refers to the framing of shots and the ways in which setting, costumes, lighting and movements within the frame contribute to the creation of a distinct cinematographic style. The term received particular critical attention by the film theorists writing for the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, particularly in the 1950s and 1960. Writing mostly about Hollywood films, these theorists argued that, while American directors did not have much control over the script of their movies, their stylistic signature could be found in the ways in which they staged their shots.
The main elements in the mise-en-scène in Frears's film reflect the main theme of the narrative: the need to see other people and to be seen by them. The elegant costumes and settings point to a society where appearances and social conventions are constitutive elements of personal identity. The insistence on close-ups in the first scenes of the film, for example, is a distinctive element of Frears's mise-en-scène which introduces the complicity, but also the deception involved in the relationship between Valmont and Mme Merteuil. The alternated close-ups of the characters facing mirrors and wearing make-up point to the mask that they wear. Significantly, the film ends in a circular fashion with Mme Meteuil again sitting in front of her mirror, but without any make up, pointing out the destruction of her mask.