Cormac Lehnen breaks down the mastery of breaking the fourth wall in cinema.
Cinema as a medium intends to draw in its audience, enveloping us into a story. However, long before the inception of film, the seal between stage and audience was broken. As far back as ancient Greece, characters in a work of fiction would pierce through the unwalled space, displaying a sort of cosmic awareness that they are in such a work. From Charlie Chaplin’s silent era films to Marvel’s Deadpool, this dramatic technique has flourished within film and remains as one of the most unique thematic devices at the disposal of a filmmaker. At its best it can create a sense of intimacy between a character and the spectator; at its worst it is a poorly wielded, imitative, cheap gag which mocks the viewer.
Of course, fourth wall breaks thrive in comedy, the genre in which they are chiefly employed. Beyond comedic effect, there is a special quality that is unique to the technique that bridges the gap between fiction and reality. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a prime example of how fourth wall breaks can create a special bond with the audience and allow a character to share their motives while giving the film a unique feeling. In Jean Pierre Jeunet's, Amelie, Amelie often breaks the fourth wall by revealing her quirks to the audience directly, allowing us to get to know her and become attached to her mainly quiet character. Similar is seen in the BBC comedy Fleabag written and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She breaks the wall incessantly during conversations, constantly letting the audience in on how she really feels and thinks of other people. It creates a closer bond between her and the audience, whilst also making for some hilarious moments.
The idea of the fourth wall became popularised with the rise of box sets and since then creators have used the whimsical space between the performance and the audience in ways that go beyond the limitations of comedy. The chilling climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) shows how horror films can also break the fourth wall in order to jar the audience, shattering the old adage of “it’s just a movie”, as the deranged killer Norman Bates stares into the camera and says “I hope they are watching, they’ll see, they’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say ‘why she wouldn’t even hurt a fly.’” Hitchcock’s play on subtlety and intimacy is almost an inversion of the given definition as it is intentionally unsettling, yet it works so effectively as the villain is depicted as so potent that their influence transcends beyond the parameters of the medium and even fiction itself. We see this repeat of the psychopath chillingly staring into the camera, as though looking directly at us with Hannibal Lector in The Silence of The Lambs and Jack Torrance cackling right at us in The Shining.
As American filmmaker, Mel Brookes said, “we all know it’s a movie, let’s drop our pants and tell the truth. No pretence, no lying … Nobody had done it in movies before, as far as I know. Nobody looked at the camera and winked.” Although he may not be quite the pioneer in breaking the fourth wall as he believes himself to be, Brookes undeniably took the age-old technique to new satirical heights and often used it as a way of creating a pointed social commentary on the artifice of cinema. His 1974 classic, Blazing Saddles, showed immense self-awareness as its characters burst through onto the set of a choreographed dance (literally breaking the fourth wall), and riding down Hollywood Boulevard into a cinema showing the film itself. The farcical nature of this scene proved that there was a method to his madness, as it poked fun at the Western genre by hanging a lantern over the unrealistic and often glorified portrayal of life in the west.
Perhaps what is most interesting about breaking of the fourth wall is that, when done right, it can actually pull us into a film rather than pushing us out. Whether it be comedy, satire, intimacy or horror, the fourth wall, when broken, opens up a world of cinematic potential that goes beyond pantomime and into the celestial.