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What is it called when a movie breaks the illusion of fantasy? For example, a character talks to the camera or otherwise breaks character so the movie violates the illusion of the fiction.

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Shouldn't Tyler Durden know the answer to that question? – svick Mar 7 at 0:21
    
You mean like when an actor stops interacting with the scene he is in, and instead address the audience directly? (A couple of movies I can recall having done that are: Whatever Works and The Big Short.) – kasperd Mar 9 at 9:33
up vote 97 down vote accepted

It's widely known as Breaking the Fourth Wall.

Breaking the fourth wall is when a character acknowledges their fictionality, by either indirectly or directly addressing the audience. Alternatively, they may interact with their creator (the author of the book, the director of the movie, the artist of the comic book, etc.).

Wikipedia elaborates about the fourth wall:

The fourth wall is the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play. The concept is usually attributed to the philosopher, critic and dramatist Denis Diderot. The term itself was used by Molière. The fourth wall illusion is often associated with naturalist theatre of the mid 19th-century, and especially with the innovations of the French director André Antoine.

The restrictions of the fourth wall were challenged in 20th-century theatre. Speaking directly to, otherwise acknowledging or doing something to the audience through this imaginary wall – or, in film, television, and video games, through a camera – is known as "breaking the fourth wall".

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Deadpool would be a very good example for this. – John Odom Mar 8 at 15:50
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House of Cards too. – Matt Harrison Mar 9 at 9:08
    
Add House of Lies and see this question from me where I mention this specific attribute: movies.stackexchange.com/questions/27432/… – noonand Mar 9 at 14:41
    
Rick Sanchez from Rick & Morty is another example. Incidentally, Rick and Deadpool are both ENTPs. – Chloe Mar 9 at 21:35

In addition to Walt's great answer, I'd like to add...

Losing the "suspension of disbelief"

When something happens that "breaks the illusion of fantasy" for the audience, you could say the audience is no longer willing/able to suspend their disbelief.

Definition:

Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person's ignorance or lack of knowledge to promote suspension of disbelief.

- source

Several things can cause audiences to no longer suspend their disbelief, including:

  • Meta-jokes
  • Self-referential jokes
  • Jokes about jokes ("meta-humor")
  • Meta-reference, a metafiction technique, is a situation in a work of fiction whereby characters display an awareness that they are in such a work, such as a film, television show or book, and possibly that they are being observed by an audience. Sometimes it may even just be a form of editing or film-making technique that comments on the programme/film/book itself.

  • Breaking the fourth wall

There is certainly some overlap between some of these points. It should also be noted that, while breaking the fourth wall and the other points listed above are predominately intentional, breaking the suspension of disbelief can often be unintentional as well. If the filmmakers fail to infuse enough semblance of truth into their fantastic tale, the audience is unable to suspend their judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. For example, some viewers couldn't manage to suspend their disbelief at seeing Indiana Jones survive a gigantic explosion by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator, or Clark Kent keeping his identity as Superman a secret without using a mask, and so on. Other implausible occurrences, plot holes, inconsistencies, or when low production values or budgetary restrictions become obvious etc. can similarly make it difficult to suspend disbelief.

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The thing that breaks my suspension of disbelief the most is blatant product promotion. Like having the heroes on the run from the badies, 1000 years from now and in space, and all they can think of is drinking some Coke? Ads are annoying on their own, inside a movie they can be extremely jarring, esp. if the plot is not in our "reality". – thkala Mar 6 at 21:59
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I find suspension of disbelief is most commonly broken unintentionally, by multiple massive plot holes and/or horribly inconsistent pseudo science (e.g. every scene in Interstellar). If we compare "breaking suspension of disbelief" and "breaking the fourth wall", the prior is generally accidental while the latter is generally intentional. – Peter Mar 7 at 4:59
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I have to disagree with this answer... Suspension of disbelief is specifically "in universe", it refers to the viewer's ability to accept improbable levels of knowledge, ignorance, skill, etc, displayed by characters in the context displayed. Failing this suspension is when you go "wait, no, that's ridiculous" such as the Indiana Jones example given. Breaking the fourth wall is specifically stepping out of universe or violating the framing, it's still immersion breaking but it's not a failure of suspension of disbelief because it's not supposed to be believed in universe. – Kaithar Mar 7 at 15:33
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I have to agree with Kaithar. Losing suspension of disbelief is something the viewer does - and if and when that happens is very abstract and personal to the viewer. Breaking the fourth wall is something the character does, and it's a very concrete and specific action. As I understood the question, that is what it was asking about. – Jason C Mar 8 at 1:36
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@JasonC The question was "What is it called when a movie breaks the illusion of fantasy? For example, a character talks to the camera or otherwise breaks character so the movie violates the illusion of the fiction." so breaking the 4th wall is just one of several ways the illusion of fantasy can be broken, which is partly why I chose to answer - I wanted to touch on more than just one was the illusion of fantasy can be broken. :) – RedCaio Mar 8 at 5:57

Verfremdungseffekt. This is often translated as "alienation effect", "distancing effect" and increasingly as "estrangement effect", sometimes reduced to simply alienation, distancing etc. and sometimes expanded again to "Brechtian alienation" or "Brechtian estrangement" because Brecht placed such importance on it, and indeed coined the term verfremdungseffekt.

Because of the Brechtian influence, sometimes the German term verfremdungseffekt is used untranslated in English.

In any case it is a matter of deliberately interfering with the classic Coleridgian suspension of disbelief. Most common would be various techniques that "break the fourth wall" which is to say refuse to pretend that there is a wall seen by the characters rather than the audience (used by extension for media other than theatre, such as direct-to-camera monologues, characters addressing fact that the reader will have to turn through pages to see what happens next, etc.) though it would also cover any other deliberate breaking of the constants that aid suspension of disbelief and identification with the characters as something other than fictional, such as changing the mode of a work; a realist style film suddenly becoming a musical, switching between live-action and animation, discussing the marketability of a plot as it progresses, allowing the street outside the back of a theatre to be seen (the second wall!) and commenting on passers-by, addressing the writing style used in a narrative, and so on. It would also cover meta-references that would be so blatant to the audience as to highlight the fictional nature, while remaining "unnoticed" by the "characters" (once one begins to deal in verfremdungseffekt the idea of what characters notice, or that characters even can notice something becomes unstable, and scare-quotes come naturally to the fingers when writing about it).

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Isn't this essentially saying the same thing as my answer, just using different words? – RedCaio Mar 12 at 22:40
    
@RedCaio well for one thing when a question asks "what is it called" then using the words in question is sort of the point, and you neglected to do that. For another, no, you talk about losing the suspension of disbelief, but not about the Brechtian approach of doing so on purpose, rather than just as a failure of verisimilitude. – Jon Hanna Mar 13 at 1:43

While this is most commonly referred to as "breaking the fourth wall", referring to the invisible barrier between the audience and what they're watching, I've also seen this referred to as "winking at the viewer".
This comes from the fact that the "breaking of the fourth wall" often takes place via one of the characters winking at the camera. Because this is so common, it has become a name for the general practise which it is an example of. For example:

It’s all one big wink at the audience ... and then Schwarzenegger actually winks at the audience.

Mike Myers is one of the great fourth-wall breakers of his generation, and he peppers one project after another with assorted nods and winks to the audience.

Both of these quotes are from "25 Classic Moments When Movies Broke the Fourth Wall".

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In what way does it not address the question? – Max Williams Mar 8 at 12:25
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Sorry, You are right. It does address the question. Perhaps you can add more to the answer like where you might have seen this referenced or perhaps an origin of the term? It seems a very specific action. – Matt Mar 8 at 12:36
    
It was a bit terse - i've expanded on it, thanks. – Max Williams Mar 8 at 12:47

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