It’s not uncommon for characters to break the fourth wall in film. It’s usually implemented as a narrative technique and used throughout a work, most famously in Annie Hall (1977), Funny Games (1999), Netflix’s House of Cards (2013) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). These common uses seek to involve the audience more closely with the main characters. The five masters I’ve chosen restrained from using the technique until the final moments of their films, and the results are effective in very different ways. These look-back moments very often change the nature of the entire film and force the audience to consider themselves in the context of the story and the viewing experience. Here are five classic wall-breaking endings.
Caution: spoilers abound.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Some wouldn’t consider the final shot of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a breaking of the fourth wall. I’d counter by saying that every frame of this film is mathematically organised and planned. The fact that a star child foetus is looking directly at us before the credits roll is no accident. Kubrick didn’t do things by accident. The final sequence sees the evolution of man, begun in the opening sequence, progress to bizarre and futuristic heights. The monolith, which seems to be an evolutionary force throughout the movie, prompts Dr David Bowman (Kier Dullea) to morph into a decrepit old man. Kubrick cuts to an in utero foetus, floating in space and looking down at Earth. The star child rotates and in the final moment, is seen looking at the camera. Kubrick’s theme of evolutionary development is handed over to the audience, who look into their future: a new generation of humanity.
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Dir. Federico Fellini)
This neo-realistic comedy-drama from Fellini sees his wife, Giulietta Massini, playing Cabiria, a prostitute who sells her home to marry an eligible bachelor. Oscar (François Périer), the man in question, deceives her and in an emotional climax attempts to throw her off a cliff and steal her money. Escaping physically unscathed but in emotional ruins, Cabiria walks down a road, where children dance around her. Crying, and smiling, she turns to the camera to grin in an optimistic final image. Neorealism was known for its strict adherence to bare cinematic techniques, but here Fellini shows a taste of what was to come. He went on to become the most extravagant director in cinema, and this little directorial flourish shows this artistic evolution. He later used the technique in La Dolce Vita (1960), to drastically different effect.
Magnolia (2002, Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling, Altman-esque epic is filled with audacious and ambitious moments. At every turn, Anderson shows off a directorial flair and surprises his audience. His ending, then, may be his most surprising decision. A quiet moment in a film that’s so often biblically loud, this subtle emotional finale is one of cinemas best. At its conclusion, most of Magnolia’s conflict remains unresolved. The kaleidoscopic ensemble cast are strewn across the San Fernando Valley, emotionally distraught. Jim (John C. Reilly) enters Claudia’s (Melora Walters) apartment. Off camera, we hear him saying, “I just wanted to come here and say something”. The rest is muffled and drowned out by Aimee Mann’s ‘Save Me’, and we only see Claudia’s reaction. In Magnolia’s final second, frail and red-eyed, she turns to the camera and smiles. Her reaction speaks optimistically as a metonym for the whole ensemble. They’ll all be okay. My heart jumps every time.
La Dolce Vita (1960, Dir. Federico Fellini)
Federico Fellini’s ending to La Dolce Vita remains an enigma. Much has been written about the final scene – in which the characters fish a bloated monster out of the ocean – but its final shot is a seemingly unlockable mystery. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) sees an angelic young woman in the distance. They exchange waves, and she yells something to Marcello that he can’t hear. He smiles at her and waves goodbye, before running back to his debaucherous crew. She continues to smile back, and then turns to the camera. She perhaps represents the opposite of the sea-monster—the salvation to the monster’s corruption. Marcello chooses to ignore his salvation, and her look into the audience perhaps suggests that we are given the option to choose otherwise.
The 400 Blows (1959, Dir. Francois Truffaut)
The 400 Blows counters Magnolia’s optimism. This bittersweet debut from Francois Truffaut begins the tale of Antoine Doinel, a boy who belongs nowhere. An innocent delinquent who isn’t given love or care from his parents, Antoine ends up at a juvenile detention centre after he attempts to steal a typewriter from his father’s office. He makes a brisk escape under a fence and runs. After a lengthy tracking shot, Truffaut shows us the ocean, which Antoine has never seen before. Hoping that the ocean will hold the mysterious power of sanctuary, it, like everything else, disappoints him. Stuck between land—full of uncompromising adults—and the sea, Antoine turns to the audience. Of course, all we can offer is empathy. Truffaut’s ending also questions the very nature of cinema. Upon out realisation that we cannot help Antoine, the fallibility of the medium to fully encapsulate reality is exposed. The shot can also be read as an autobiographical embellishment. Everybody knows that Antoine Doinel is an incarnation of Truffaut himself. When Truffaut encountered these similar troubles, he turned to cinema, just as Antoine turns to the camera.
Feel free to share your interpretations and contribute other wall-breaking endings in the comments below!
About the Author
Jaymes Durante is the founder and editor of LoadedFilm.org He is currently completing his BA in film studies at Curtin University and is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association. Jaymes panics regularly at the thought that he may never reach the end of his ‘to watch’ list. Read his reviews here.