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You talking to me? House of Cards and breaking the fourth wall

Kevin Spacey’s direct address as Frank Underwood keeps the audience compliant and intrigued. Foxtel

Season two of US political thriller House of Cards hit Netflix as a complete 13-part series in February and, depending on which way you chose to watch it in Australia, you’ll have either binged shamelessly on Foxtel, downloaded it through file-sharing services, or will still be watching it in a more staggered fashion through iTunes, currently up to episode five.

Regardless, you have been complicit in main character Vice President Frank Underwood’s (played by Kevin Spacey) Machiavellian rise to power as he continues to involve the audience directly in his duplicity by breaking the fourth wall.

This narrative technique, known as “direct address” in cinema and soliloquy in theatre, is when a character speaks directly to the audience and connects with us in an unmistakable way. As a device it is by no means new, but what exactly are the motivations for its use?

House of Cards, based on the [1990s BBC series]( of the same name, started well for a political drama – slick, clever, sexy, and mysterious. But about about 20 minutes in to the first episode in season one I started to get bored of the anticipation of something, anything, happening.

Then, just as the protagonist led us into a fairly pedestrian scene outside his home, a car hit a dog. Interesting. Plot-wise, I knew the dog had to have significant meaning, but character-wise what was the purpose? Was I about to see how the character, whose name I still hadn’t cared to remember, would handle the situation? Through justice, revenge or pity?

The character walked towards the dying dog, then suddenly glanced up at me. Not anyone else. Just me. Then I remembered: Spacey’s character name was Frank Underwood and his wife was Claire. That is the power of breaking the fourth wall, audiences suddenly pay attention. And the best thing of all – I didn’t see it coming.

Shhh. Frank Underwood is talking to you.

Direct address is nothing new

Shakespeare used occasional soliloquies to address his audience in plays such as Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It and Henry V.

“To be, or not to be”, let’s remember, is not directed at any of the characters in the great tragedy - it’s directed squarely to us; we are invited, through dramatic convention, to “see” what a character is thinking, thereby gaining insight into his motivations.

Our sympathy for that character, our sense of “knowing” them and siding with them, increases as a result.

Even with a fictionalised character as hideous as Richard III who imprisons his nephews Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury - we tend to side with him, and his travails, against our will.

Literature, as a rule, trumps TV and cinema in its ability to showcase the interior of characters; the direct address, as employed by Underwood, goes some way to bridging the gap, and in doing so allows us to identify with the character.

Ian McKellen as Richard III waits until late in the first scene to acknowledge his audience.

It was German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote in the 1920s about the breaking down of the fourth wall as an important principle of “the alienation effect”. That is, techniques used to break down the comfortable distance between us, the audience watching unnoticed, and an actor on stage directing their actions towards us, distancing us from the artificiality of performance.

This device works similarly in cinema.

English author Tom Brown highlights French director Jean-Luc Godard’s use of direct address in films such as Breathless (1960), La Chinoise (1967), Week End (1967) and Pierrot le Fou (1965).

Godard’s films are, Brown says, “notable for their blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary”.

American director Spike Lee’s 1989 feature film, Do the Right Thing, uses direct address by arousing an argument between characters on screen during an onslaught of racial slurs and obscenities, all the while staring right at us. This direct attack allows the words to linger in the spectator’s mind as we move back into the rest of the film.

Racist stereotypes in Do the Right Thing.

Why House of Cards breaks the fourth wall is not always so obvious.

Throughout the early part of the series, plenty of sidelong looks ensure the audience is paying attention and we begin to understand how Frank Underwood’s sense of humour operates. His direct address makes us feel like we’re in the same secret club. Only we truly understand what’s wrong with all these “other people”.

Frank’s often cheeky glances make me think of the very lovable Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). A somewhat strange comparison perhaps, but still, I couldn’t help but see the connection, especially in the early part of the series. Ferris’ distaste, clearly expressed with a direct look or a heartfelt speech to camera before doing the wrong thing, is part of his charm.

Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue.

Frank Underwood’s knowing sideways glances equally make us feel like we’re the only ones in the world who know what is about to happen. We are, as with Richard III, complicit.

His direct address plays a vital role in keeping the audience intrigued and compliant, even when things get ugly. Even in dramatic situations, in which lives are at stake, there is no immediate breaking of the fourth wall. What could Frank possibly say to make us forgive him?

The use of direct address in House of Cards works best when Frank needs us to be on his side. Using sharp humour, brash statements and provocative monologues that make us question God more than we question any wrong doing of Frank’s. The device has become something the audience can participate in; we begin to believe we understand how Frank ticks.

In season two Frank follows Raymond Tusk, an industrialist and close friend of the President, on a nature walk. Raymond hands Frank a pair of binoculars. Frank Underwood bird watching? I found myself rolling my eyes sarcastically and waited for Frank to do the same thing back to me.

He did, just as I knew he would.

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