It’s a peculiar moment when the person you have been intently watching appears to stare right back at you, piercing through the supposedly protective barrier of the screen: the same screen that had initially facilitated your voyeurism. Regardless of whether your fading knowledge of film theory kicks in and you immediately label the occurrence as an instance of the so-called ‘fourth wall’ being broken, or you lack the terminology to capture this strange intrusion into your personal space, it nevertheless grabs your attention. ‘He/she/it’s looking directly at me!’ Perhaps these moments amount to little more than shock value, but arguably there is much more to these exchanges than the immediate effects of the formal technique would suggest. When an on-screen personality makes eye contact with the spectator a whole range of meanings can be inferred from that exchange, although, such meanings vary and are largely dependent on the context of the exchange itself. The fourth wall may have been broken, but what did that wall represent? What effect does the intrusion have? Where does that leave you – the viewer?
If you look back at early cinema when staging was far more theatrical in nature (taking its cue from the popular entertainments and music hall acts of the day) a glance directly at the camera was common place. In many respects, the film’s implied space had not become enclosed or fixed: not subject to a the regulations of perceived realism. If you look at the early works of pioneers like Méliès or other ‘trick’ films, it is only natural that the showmen address their audiences directly. The notion of the fourth wall being broken is not a major issue during a period in which the fourth wall was yet to have been built.
The weight of meaning placed upon an intrusion of the fourth wall only begins to increase once cinema began to progress towards what has been termed its ‘classical’ formulation, in which narrative film reined in the temporal and spatial parameters of cinematic space. However, acknowledging the audience was not entirely removed from film altogether. Eye contact with the audience is used for a very specific effect when we examine the comedy genre in some of its pioneering manifestations. For example, Charlie Chaplin frequently made eye contact with his audience in a comically self-aware manner – a wink or glance to the audience when in the presence of a love interest or compromising situation. In this instance, eye contact breaks the boundaries of the film in order to allow the audience to feel like they are in on the joke and part of the fun.
In contrast, if Chaplin’s eye contact allowed a degree of connection between star and audience, Ozu’s use of point-of-view camera work imbues his deconstruction of the fourth wall with a level of empathy, placing the spectator into the position of the character being addressed. In a sense, Ozu maintains the fourth wall; his characters aren’t addressing the audience even if their eye-lines may suggest as much. Rather, the camera becomes an eye itself, the literal point of view of a character. Through this extension, Ozu’s intrusion through the fourth wall becomes empathetic and therefore an integral part of the director’s domestic dramas. The view being stressed isn’t the gaze of the character looking outwards towards the audience, but the view of the character the camera is emulating.
Of course, this rupture of on-screen reality the breaking of the fourth wall can prompt can carry far more serious meanings. At the moment of Dietrichson’s murder in Double Indemnity, director Billy Wilder chooses to show, not the murder itself (although it is audible), but a face-on shot of femme fatale Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). Immediately our eyes are drawn towards her own, yet she exhibits an almost glazed over expression. There is a lack of connection between spectator and character in this moment, particularly when compared with the examples already discussed. This is not a moment of self-awareness as it was with Chaplin. We can see her but she can’t see us. But there is something almost uncanny about her gaze matching our own, the kind of unease one might feel if eye contact were coincidently achieved whilst watching a criminal through a one-way mirror in a police line-up. The intensity of her gaze makes her the sole focus within the action taking place. Despite the fact that Walter Neff is the one committing the crime, Phyllis’s facial expression – her initial display of shock followed by a noticeable acceptance and a sly, near-imperceptible smirk – betrays the character as the sinister driving force behind the film’s macabre narrative. In this moment, the eyes truly are windows to the soul.
But whilst Wilder affords us a glance into the eyes of a cold-blooded murderer whilst allowing us to keep ourselves at a distance, Michael Haneke makes us complicit in the perpetration of cinematic bloodshed through the same device, with his fourth-wall-shattering film Funny Games. Here, the average spectator’s complicity in the events which unfold on screen – placing under the microscope the widespread cultural encouragement of screen violence propagated and supported by the resounding success of the genre films Michael Haneke imitates – is devastatingly brought home by the simple device of eye contact maintained between the film’s antagonists and its spectator. Of course, Haneke’s characters go further than a simple moment of eye contact by talking to the audience directly, although it is that first gaze outwards which truly brings the film’s message home. In a sense, Haneke is utilising the same ‘wink-wink’ self-awareness as Chaplin did, but for the purpose of horror and not comedy.
Making eye contact with the audience is a heavily symbolic gesture, but a gesture which achieves meaning through the context in which it appears and not simply by the formal technique alone. Take any other instance – Norman Bates’ haunting gaze at the end of Psycho to the off-hand remarks to camera in Airplane! – and you will find a different dynamic at work between character and audience. Ultimately, the use of character/spectator eye contact in cinema is not just an effect, but can be a comical/horrifying/emotional/radical interplay between a film and its audience.