: an imaginary wall (as at the opening of a modern stage proscenium) that keeps performers from recognizing or directly addressing their audience
An old term related to audience participation in theatre but in film terms, the fourth wall is essentially the screen. Usually used for comic effect, here are my five favourite uses of the technique where a character disturbs the passive audience to speak directly to camera.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall and in his latest masterpiece, Leonardo DiCaprio regularly lets the audience in on his illegal operations. Playing the part of Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort, he takes time out from his scamming to explain financial jargon and how much money he is making. How nice of him!
Matthew Broderick tells it like it is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, talking the audience through his foolproof plan to pull a sickie from school and have a day of fun. The cheeky-chappy style and delivery is copied by Saved by the Bell’s lovable rogue Zack Morris.
The list takes a darker turn onto the gritty cobbled streets of Edinburgh with Jon C. Baird’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth. Alcoholic junkie cop Bruce Robertson is not a well man, physically or mentally, and we, as an audience, are complicit to his wicked mind games as he turns colleagues against each other and betrays his friends.
In Michael Haneke’s psychotic thriller Funny Games, the fourth wall is well and truly smashed when a character not only speaks into the camera but rewinds the film back a few minutes so that he can play it out his own way! The Austrian original version is excellent but if you don’t want subtitles, Haneke remade his own work for a wider English speaking audience with Boardwalk Empire star Michael Pitt holding the remote.
We’ve all been frustrated in a queue, being subjected to the thoughts of the outspoken, wanting to challenge them or simply tell them to keep their idiotic opinions to themselves! In the Oscar winning romantic comedy Annie Hall, stand up comedian Alvy Singer speaks up to defend the work of highly regarded philosopher Marshall McLuhan. When discussing the scene, director Woody Allen said ‘I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly.”
For more analysis of Woody Allen’s work, click here!