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(Credit: Fleabag / BBC)

Film

Why is it called breaking the fourth wall?

Breaking the fourth wall. It’s a concept that, if you’re even slightly interested in film, you will have heard tossed around on countless occasions. The technique allows directors to take their viewers deeper into the lives of their characters, allowing us to access thoughts and feelings that otherwise would have been closed off.

Take the opening monologue in the 1986 cult comedy, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which Ferris, speaking directly to the camera, says: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it”, before going on to break down the methodology behind the perfect bunk-off. This introductory speech brings us into Ferris’ world and tells us that we are his friends, that he trusts us.

Or, take The Wolf Of Wall Street, in which Jordan Belforte not only narrates the sordid activities going on inside his Wall Street office but also explains – again directly to the audience – the techniques he uses to get away with them. As with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this creates a level of intimacy that allows us, the audience, to fall under Jordan’s spell the same as everybody else.

But where does the term ‘breaking the fourth wall’ come from, and how can we tell when a director is intentionally making this important creative decision? Well, if you’re tired of sitting on the couch not knowing whether to laugh or nod sternly when someone notices that the fourth wall has well and truly been broken, fear not — we’re here to supply you with all the knowledge you need.

What is breaking the fourth wall?

Well, simply put, breaking the fourth wall refers to a moment in a narrative work (usually a play or film) when one of the characters seems to notice that they are an invented character, living within a fictional world that you, the audience, are observing.

As viewers, we are used to being treated as ghostly spectators, who have the power to see characters making decisions without being directly addressed by those same characters. When somebody breaks the fourth wall, that entire concept is flipped on its head, with the characters talking directly to the audience and making them, by extension, aware of themselves as viewers.

Let’s use Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s BBC series Fleabag as an example. In that show, Waller-Bridge leads us to believe that we are watching a story that doesn’t involve us whatsoever. We were not present when any of the events that take place actually happened, and so we assume that we will not be called upon to offer counsel.

So when the lead character turns to the camera, looks straight down the lens, and starts commenting about a particular lover’s sex habits, we are shocked to find ourselves involved in her world. It’s as if we’re her friend, and she’s confessing things to us that she wouldn’t tell anybody else. That, mon ami, is breaking the fourth wall.

Where did the term ‘breaking the fourth wall’ come from?

Well, the fact that Fleabag was originally performed as a play gives us an important clue. The notion of breaking the fourth wall actually originated in the theatre. If you go to somewhere like Shakespeare’s Globe, you will see that the actors have only a small space to move around in; an area of around 13 meters enclosed within three walls: one at the back, and two at the sides.

These three walls contain the created word of the play, but occasionally an actor might deliver an aside (a line spoken directly to the audience) or a soliloquy (a monologue delivered when no other characters are present), thus breaking the illusion that this world is somehow isolated from the world of the audience, and allowing the character to acknowledge the artificiality of their environment. Shakespeare loved doing this and often had his tragic heroes (i.e Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth) speaking directly to the audience as though they were their confidants.

Earliest examples of breaking the fourth wall?

Some of the earliest examples of breaking the fourth wall in the world of cinema came with the comedy films of Laurel & Hardy or Groucho Marx, all of whom stared directly into the camera to seek empathy from their viewers. Since then it has been used time and time again by the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Monty Python and countless others. But, rather than breaking the physical walls of a stage, the fourth wall that is broken in cinema is that of the frame itself, with characters looking down the fourth, implied frame represented by the camera’s lens.

So, the next time you find yourself confused about the elusive fourth wall, just remembers that it’s all about breaking the illusion of fiction.