The Dos and Don’ts of Breaking The Fourth Wall

Film, in general, is a form of storytelling. Every movie tells a story, with a few rare exceptions such as Un Chien Andalou or Wavelength, and those avant-garde films that simply set out to shoot for the sake of shooting, with their own personal reasons. But most movies are stories. They grab the viewer and pull them into the drama. They make them part of it. They involve them. They make the viewer feel like they are part of the story, that they are inside something that’s a film, but feels more like real life. That’s what a movie’s job is, right? Right. But then there are other films, where the director chooses to do something that completely shatters the illusion of watching the film, a brutal reminder that what we’re seeing is all acted and not real at all. This is called breaking the fourth wall. Generally, it consists of a character either acknowledging there is a camera watching them, or the camera equipment or crew being visible on screen. Some directors are admired for doing it. Some are criticised. So what gives a filmmaker an excuse to do it? What makes it acceptable? For that matter, what’s so bad about it? My latest rant is out to examine the answer to these questions.

The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami said of his career: “I do not like to engage in storytelling.” He does not want his films to be stories, but films. In the film that is arguably his masterpiece, Taste of Cherry, he indulges in perhaps the most famous scene of fourth-wall breaking in history. After presenting to us 90 minutes of fantastic, gripping storytelling, he brutally slaps the viewer in the face in the last 5 minutes by showing shots of the camera crew setting up equipment as he tells them what to do. What was the point of this, everyone asked. While I have my own theories, which I elaborated in my review, I cannot deny that Kiarostami had guts to do what he did.

Another filmmaker who enjoyed breaking the fourth wall (and ironically is a fan of Kiarostami) is the controversial Jean-Luc Godard, whose contribution to the French New Wave forever changed contemporary cinema. I’ve seen and analysed several of his 60s films, including my personal favourites Breathless, Vivre sa Vie, Contempt, Bande a Part, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Week End, among others, and all of them feature some pretty startling filmmaking techniques that would be scoffed at if they were used today. Take Week End, for example, which breaks the fourth wall more than any other Godard film I’ve seen. There is one scene where the frustrated characters are wandering around a barren wasteland of crime and poverty, and one of them sighs and says, “What a terrible film we’re in.”

Then there is Ingmar Bergman. He did not break the fourth wall very often at all, but I can clearly remember two instances of it that blew me away, and worked very well. The first was in his 1966 film Persona – a film which breaks the fourth wall numerous times, but for a purpose, which I’ll go into later. The one shot that sticks in the mind of many is the brief image of Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist moving the camera to focus it on actress Liv Ullmann’s face. Another wall breaker was in Bergman’s 1969 film A Passion (known popularly as The Passion of Anna), an underrated movie about a man who begins a relationship with a woman who is hiding deep scars from her previous marriage. The film features three or four startling behind-the-scenes sequences in which the actors playing the lead roles elaborate to the camera about their characters and what they believe motivates them.

Then there are comedies or farces, in which the actors willingly engage with the audience. These don’t really count and don’t help the point I’m making; those particular instances of wall breaking are for an entirely different purpose, and that is to get the viewer involved with characters by discussing the situation with them. This, essentially, is not the same as, say… showing the camera or crew on screen. There’s a different motivation behind this, and it does not ruin the story; in fact, it accentuates it and makes it more fun. The fourth wall breaking I’m talking about is when the director intentionally tries to distance the viewer from the film using tactics that many see as unusual and taboo.

If you are making a serious dramatic film like Week End, Persona or Taste of Cherry, there are boundaries. You can break the fourth wall if you have a reason. However, it’s impossible to guarantee people will be happy with and accept that reason. Week End is an analysis of society in disarray; it features exaggerated traffic jams, casual rape with no consequences, murder, cannabalism, and eggs where eggs should never be. It is Godard trying to present an anti-society; a place where things are the opposite of the way they should be, and what would normally be immoral is acceptable and enjoyable. This gives Godard reason enough to fuck with the viewer: in a normal film, the story would be told properly without such frustrating interruptions; but this is not a normal film: it’s a look at society at it’s most fraught and senseless, so why not example filmmaking techniques that are fraught and senseless to heighten the insanity?

That’s one acceptable reason to break the fourth wall: to make the world of the film seem even more crazy and dark. However, most filmmakers, when they break the fourth wall, say it is to “remind the viewer they are watching a film.” That’s not a reason. Why are you reminding them? What purpose does reminding them serve? These are questions filmmakers need to answer. I’ve come up with a reason I believe Week End broke the wall, but I can’t answer for every film. The answer lies within the filmmakers, who are often so tight-lipped about their motivations that it becomes frustrating. Are they trying to hide the fact that they had no reason to break the wall, and just did it to be different? I doubt it. Everyone should have a reason. I believe Godard, Bergman, and Kiarostami (among others) had their reasons, and they’re for us to decide. A film should be decoded based on the individual viewer’s understanding of it, not the filmmakers or anyone else’s.

So, in a nutshell, I can’t give you reasons. The reasons are up for you to decide. This is purely my rant on why I think breaking the fourth wall can be acceptable, sometimes. I don’t think it’s always acceptable; there are times when it seems downright pointless and annoying. But it needs to be considered. It’s not a cheap trick. It can be effective.

I don’t think it was ever used better than in Week End, which is to this day the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. But these days, as filmmakers use it (which thankfully is rarely), it becomes less and less acceptable. It’s a difficult thing to understand, and it can take a lot of fun out of watching a film. It’s one of those techniques adopted by filmmakers who weren’t telling stories to begin with… they were simply making a film that people weren’t meant to enjoy, but were meant to think about. It’s these films I love, and thinking about these movies the other day brought me to this rant.

I can’t really think of a suitable closing statement, but I’d like to leave you with another great fourth-wall breaking scene, that is actually very different from the others I’ve mentioned here. This is an extreme, elaborate trick that I admire. In David Lynch’s Inland Empire, he tells of an actress who makes a movie that eventually swallows her whole personality, absorbing her like a sponge, until she is a completely different person. About an hour in, The Actress starts making her movie. Then, a couple hours later, after we’ve become so absorbed with the movie The Actress is making, we forget that the movie she’s making is actually a film-within-a-film. And when Lynch zooms his camera out and reveals that The Actress is actually on a stage making a movie, we are reminded subtly that we’re watching Inland Empire, not the film The Actress is making. How could we forget we’re watching someone play The Actress, and not The Actress play someone? Lynch has so deceptively conned us into becoming drawn into not one, but two films: his movie, and the one his character is making.

The idea of pulling off this trick, perhaps, is a filmmaker’s greatest achievement, whether we want to accept it or not. Because after all, as pessimistic as it may sound, filmmaking is really all about one thing, and it’s not storytelling. It’s deception.

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What are your thoughts on breaking the fourth wall? Do you think it’s acceptable for some filmmakers, or completely wrong altogether? I’m sure your comments will make more sense than my awful rant, so start typing below.

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Posted on November 17, 2011, in Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’m generally not a fan of breaking the fourth wall. The only time i can think of where it was done in a way that didn’t annoy was in Do the Right Thing.

    I’ve never seen Taste of Cherry, but if i did i probably would not like the end from the way you described it.

    • I think I made TASTE OF CHERRY sound a lot worse than it actually is; let me clarify: it is one of my 50 all-time favourite films. I gave it a 10/10 review. It’s an amazing film. But the ending has ruined it for a lot of people, so I can understand why they have a problem with it.

      • While the ending of Bell De Jour didn’t ruin it for me, i wasn’t really a fan of it. Was a bit too arty for my tastes.

        And i just remembered Kubrick technically broke the fourth wall in A CLockwork Orange when Alex looked directly at the camera…although the way its done doesn’t really take you out of the film, which is probably why it didn’t bother me, unlike in Breathless.

        • The camera staring in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is acceptable because Alex also talks directly to the viewer via narration. I suppose it’s breaking the fourth wall, but not in the blatant sense I’m referring to with this post.

  2. I’m with Dirty, so to speak. I don’t like it at all, but if it has to be done then DtRT gets a pass.

  3. What a great read Tyler. I do love your rants. You have a great way of writing.

    Anyway, I am not especially a fan of being let through the fourth wall. I like to remain a voyeur in the proceedings.

    Thanks for this one, hope you are well

    • Most people do like to remain a voyeur, and I can understand it. I do too. This is just me writing about directors who choose to break the rules.

  4. Great read, will have to seek out Taste of Cherry now, those last 5 mins sound like a hilarious punchline in a joke played on the viewer! I think Fight Club would count as a good example of this. The visible ‘cigarette burn’ that Tyler points to on screen to show the reel changeover point, the scene where Norton just starts talking directly to camera for a few minutes, the shaking of the film where Tyler stares into camera and the sprocket holes of the film appear visibly at the sides of the frame. And of course the single frame of porn spliced into the last moments of the film.

    Love the last shot of The 400 Blows when the boy stares into camera. Need to see Weekend!

    • I would watch TASTE OF CHERRY but not because it broke the fourth wall, but because it’s a great film that should be seen.

      FIGHT CLUB isn’t exactly the kind of film I’m talking about, but yes, it does break the fourth wall in a decidedly moderate way.

      THE 400 BLOWS final shot is brilliant; love love love that film.

      You NEED to see WEEK END.

  5. Maybe a bad example (I haven’t seen anny of the movies above, they ‘sound’ serious and deep) but I like the way they implemented it with The office series.

    Eventualy it makes you think you’re really watching a documentery instead of a ‘sitcom’.

  6. Smokey and the Bandit did it as well and it really didnt bother me either.

  7. Ahem, I can’t believe Woody Allen’s Annie Hall didn’t make the cut!

    [annie denies she accedently uses the word 'wife' instead of life']
    “I know you heard her so I’m not crazy”

    “Oh, do ya? Well, that’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me… [pulls McLuhan out from behind a nearby poster] “

    • It’s not the right example to make my point in this post. Remember, this isn’t a list of movies that break the fourth wall… more of a rant about the fourth wall being broken in general. I couldn’t mention EVERY movie that does it.

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