The device of “breaking the fourth wall” is the breaching of the separation between art and audience. The concept first emerged in theater, referring to a long tradition of actors making asides directly to the audiece. Addressing those gathered, the actors (in character) would acknowledge their relationship with the audience and call attention to the fact that they were in a play. Thus these moments cut through the imaginary “fourth wall” of a proscenium stage that stands between the drama and audience in a naturalist play.
While there are many contemporary films and TV shows that use breaking the fourth wall as a major storytelling device – like Fight Club (1999) or Amelie (2001) – it is hardly a new phenomenon. One of the earliest examples of the technique’s use in cinema is from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, with the famous final image of a train robber shooting directly at the audience. (An apocryphal story goes that early filmgoers ducked for cover when the scene was first shown.) In the films of the Marx Brothers, Groucho frequently breaks the fourth wall to deliver asides to the audience, letting them in on his putdowns of Margaret Dumont. More earnestly, Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) transforms into a direct plea to the audience for peace and freedom.
Breaking the fourth wall often serves the purpose of disrupting the narrative flow, reminding us that we’re watching a film. This can be to draw attention to a social message, in the tradition of theater director Bertolt Brecht, who famously sought to distance audiences from his plays so that they would not engage in escapist distraction, but would feel motivated to take social action as a result of what they saw. (This use of theatrical self-awareness to inspire political action can also be seen in Spike Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq.) Breaking the fourth wall can also be a formal, experimental technique that draws attention to the medium. One of the greatest proponents of breaking the fourth wall in film history is Jean-Luc Godard, who has used the device repeatedly throughout his career. In many of his earlier films, Godard’s primary interest is the examination and deconstruction of the medium of cinema. This function of the technique occurs repeatedly throughout Pierrot le fou (1965), in which the lead characters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina repeatedly speak directly to the audience, often commenting specifically on the film-viewer relationship. The film’s use of the technique – as well as Godard’s easy, playful relationship with metatheatricality – is best illustrated by a brief scene in which a conversation between characters quickly and unexpectedly becomes a conversation between film and audience.
In later films, Godard increasingly used the device of breaking the fourth wall for political, didactic ends. In Tout va bien (1972), Godard has a range of characters address the audience directly to lay out their points of view about class, money, and labor. While workers lay out their grievances directly to the camera, a cartoonish executive serves as a mouthpiece for what Godard sees as the hollow defenses of the exploitative rich.
While the examples of breaking the fourth wall in the films of Godard are varied, they always ultimately call attention to the medium in which he is working and the ideas he is trying to communicate.
However, the technique can also be used for narrative, rather than didactic, ends. A character addressing us directly can just as often draw us in to the story, instead of taking us out. Take, for example, the films of Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is one of the most famous examples of recent years of a film that uses the consistent breaking of the fourth wall as a central storytelling technique. Instead of pulling the audience out of the story and making them aware of the fact that they are watching a film, The Wolf of Wall Street uses Leonardo DiCaprio’s seductive, charismatic direct address to the audience to make a horrifying story go down easy. Jordan Belfort is a morally bankrupt character who does terrible things that ruin the lives of family, friends, and many innocent people. However, what might seem incomprehensible and unforgivable when viewed from the outside appears understandable, inevitable, and fun when DiCaprio looks us in the eye and invites us to join him.
Similarly, in the realm of television, the consistent breaking of the fourth wall in House of Cards (2013-) provides insight into the machinations of the lead character. Where Wolf of Wall Street employs the technique to seduce the audience, House of Cards is more interested in creating dramatic irony, inviting the audience to observe the distance between who Frank Underwood truly is and the character he presents to the world. While the show is frequently compared to Macbeth, it has clear theatrical antecedents in Richard III and Othello‘s Iago, characters who address the audience directly to let them in on their devious plots.
Breaking the fourth wall is a flexible artistic device that can alternately be used to distance audience from the story and draw them in closer. Its uses can be political or aesthetic, dramatic or comic. Whatever its ultimate goal, breaking the fourth wall always reminds us that we are in the process of viewing and participating in the telling of a story.