Beautiful, sprightly music plays as the two protagonists of Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Ferdinand and Marianne, cruise around in the countryside in a stolen Ford Galaxie. The film is Godard at his cheeky best – bright colours, violence, making movies about movies. Marianne, Ferdinand’s ex-love and now partner-in-crime, is describing all the things they’ll do once they acquire a suitcase of money:
Marianne: Then, we’ll find a high-class hotel and have some fun!
Ferdinand, hands on the wheel, turns behind him and looks directly into the camera.
Ferdinand: You see? All she thinks about is fun.
Marianne: Who are you talking to?
Ferdinand: The audience.
Marianne glances briefly at the camera too.
These moments are scattered throughout many of Godard’s films, almost offhandedly. At the same time, they’re fun and unobtrusive. Perhaps it’s just Ferdinand here being crazy, talking to a pretend viewer; Marianne, passionate as she is, plays along. Godard’s directing, of course, was neither the first nor last to innovatively explore and toy with the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall moves beyond realism, towards a form of transrealism self-reflexively commenting on the fiction and medium itself. In this light, a moment of audience acknowledgement like this can also be understood as part of the many ways Godard popularized many novel techniques – jump cuts, narrative sidelines, chaotic sound camera placement – departing from more formalist filmmaking techniques. Nonetheless, such techniques were for Godard his expression of ‘critical cinephilia’ and response to prevailing film theory, and breaking the fourth wall has been adopted in other films to varying ends.
The fourth wall refers to the barrier between stage and audience, a gulf between fiction and reality. The term is not unique to filmmaking, having its antecedents in theatrical explorations of realism itself. Against the lavish, distinctly bourgeois set and lighting technology of the 1920s, German playwright Berthold Brecht sought to insert the occasional puncture of theatre’s fiction of its own insulation from the audience. Like other these mediums, the power of film in part derives from its relationship with its audience, namely its ability to – however momentarily – bring viewers into a cinematic world. Much has been written about the various techniques that help to immerse, to conjure up captivating, lively worlds. We are entranced, coming to be invested not just in the plot of a movie but in real stories, not just in the dialogue between Character A and Character B but in the psyches, the motivations, the fates of real human beings. No doubt, some have perfected these techniques – but the best art is what questions itself.
Breaks in the fourth wall therefore thrive in comedy. Even gentle nudges worked brilliantly, characters engaging the audience, almost winking at their fictional nature. The eponymous character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) brings us through a day of playing hooky. Right as his parents fall for his malingering, and leave him for the day, he gets up. “They bought it,” he declares – the connection with the audience is instant, setting the stage for his self-assured, cocky romp around town. The next five minutes are comically instructional, taking the form of a follow-as-you-go tutorial, replete with on-screen text, of just how he’s pulled it off. Deep down the sentiments are relatable for any peer (“Who gives a crap if they’re socialists? Or fascists, anarchists… it still doesn’t change the fact I don’t own a car”). His charisma does not radiate from a distance, but almost as if we’re sharing in his delightfully teenage plotting.
Yet, the peaks of playfulness are achieved not just through flippant, sarcastic banter between characters or our protagonist’s rejection of societal convention – no, it takes a complete irreverence towards the medium of film itself. True to his comic book self, Deadpool is full of these moments: “You might want to look away from this”, he cautions, right before a gruesome scene – and the cameraman (thankfully) obliges. Even when the credits roll, he lampoons the entertainment industry itself, stepping out in pyjamas. “You’re still here? Go home! … Oh, you’re expecting a teaser for Deadpool 2?”
However, other genres have broken the fourth wall to establish a dialectic between character and viewer, reversing audience’s gaze through an inversion placing us in the heads of characters themselves. Jungian notions of the unconscious feature heavily in the works of Ingmar Bergman. One of his first uses of the technique is in Summer with Monika (1953), as the titular character prepares to cheat on her husband. Godard, in his review, notes how she “stares fixedly into the camera, her laughing eyes clouded with distress, and calls on the viewer to witness her self-loathing at involuntarily choosing hell over heaven. It is the saddest shot in the history of cinema.” One grasps the deep impression the Swedish auteur left on his French contemporary, even as we can appreciate the distinctive ways both directors would toy with the fourth wall over their impressive filmographies.
It is not that cinema has necessarily become more artificial: the medium itself was never separable from the rest of the film. But perhaps the nature of film-watching itself has changed. No longer must we enter movie theatres, purposive institutions of cinema, especially as streaming becomes easier and far more accessible. Actors become more recognizable, even larger than their characters, particularly with celebrities highly visible on social media. That’s not Winslow the lighthouse keeper, within a self-contained film about a lighthouse, it’s Robert Pattinson atoning for his Twilight sins. It seems trite to conclude that we live in an age of Post-Modern cinema, but the significance of the fourth wall (or lack thereof) is evident when we consider Post-Modern playfulness and absurdity amidst a fragmented, chaotic textual landscape. Today’s prevalence of metafictional explorations of the medium itself, and the fact that no film is sui generis, instead taking cues, motifs and influence from extant works, encourages us to look at breaking the fourth wall as another nod towards how our relationship with film will only continue to change.