2) Sharing An Emotional Experience: American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty is not traditionally included among the fourth-wall-breaking movies. It is true that Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is narrating in a way that is specifically intended to take the viewer through his life, but the same could be said of many movies that are narrated. Narration doesn’t immediately mean that the narrator is ignoring the barrier between movie and audience, or acknowledging that they are fictitious (if this was the case, then it would technically be impossible to write an autobiography).
The particular narration in American Beauty, however, is designed to do two specific things. It is intended to create a direct sense of sympathy from the audience towards Lester, and – crucially – it is meant to distinguish Lester as a real human being, in comparison to the artificial, pretentious fakery of his wife, who he both pities and despises. The fourth wall is being subtly tapped upon here, by Lester appearing to be outside of the other characters in the film.
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But the narration is also combined with another, more obvious, fourth wall device: Eye contact. The camera frequently cuts from Lester’s direct gaze to Angela (Mena Suvari), the friend of his daughter with whom he has fallen in fantastical love. These shots increase the highly intimate sense that the audience are looking at whatever Lester is looking at. In these sequences, Angela herself is often found to be looking directly back, encouraging the audience’s immediate participation with Lester’s experience.
Direct eye contact between Lester and the actual audience only occurs twice in the film, but they are enormously important points. The first is when Lester and his wife Carolyn fight about the dire state of their marriage. It is the first time that Lester has told Carolyn what he is really thinking, and the first time that he has challenged her rigid control, and her derisive, superior attitude towards him.
Having had the last word, Lester lies down in bed, turns over triumphantly, and lays still, facing the camera. A complicated combination of surprise, fear, joy and satisfaction at his own nerve plays out on his face in a small smile, and very briefly, he looks straight into the lens. The audience, who are living this life with Lester, are wholly included in that small victory.
The second point occurs at the very end of the film, which is common for a movie in which the character has taken the viewer through it. But this particular break of the fourth wall is among the most unusual on the list – because at this point, Lester is dead.
Having been shot in the back of the head, Lester lies slumped over the kitchen table in a spreading pool of blood. His daughter’s boyfriend, Ricky, who throughout the movie has represented a fine and macabre balance between beauty and death, kneels down to look at him, fascinated. During the first shot of his face, Lester’s blank stare falls just beneath the camera. When the shot returns from Ricky to Lester, the change is extremely subtle, but it is there: Lester’s gaze has moved, just fractionally, to following a direct line to the camera.
This is the last time that we see Lester onscreen, and there can be no doubt as to the significance of his communication with the audience. We have seen much of Lester’s life through his eyes – his mistreatment, his fantasies, his growing confidence – now, in these last few moments, we see the very end of his journey.
Lester’s voice over begins again, and he talks the viewer through flashes of memory from his life; of his grandmother, of his cousin’s new car, of his daughter Janie – and, perhaps most movingly, of Carolyn. The last of the voice over is addressed specifically to the viewer: “I feel nothing but gratitude, for every moment of my stupid, little life,” Lester concludes. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? But don’t worry – you will.”