Characters talk. This is dialogue. Then, breaking away, one turns to the camera and speaks to us: holding court one-sidedly to spill secret or snark. (You know, dear reader. Like this.) This is a breaking of the fourth wall, and movies have been doing it for over a hundred years. With half of 2019 gone, I salute the year’s smartest moment so far, where one comedy has single-mouthedly revolutionized this approach.
Fleabag is a show about an incredibly bright woman speaking to us constantly: confiding, confessing, winking, daring us to keep up with her electrifying, pinballing brain. Written by leading lady Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show—streaming on Amazon Prime—allows us ringside seats to the heroine’s head, a dark place brightened primarily by her tone when she addresses us. She needs us because nobody else gets her mile-a-minute raillery.
And because we won’t talk back. The first season exposed us to how she is eternally misunderstood. She makes time (during sex) to roll her eyes at us, but won’t complain to the man she’s in bed with. She’s perpetually afraid of being seen. Fear of judgement is writ large through that beautiful, brittle first season, a story of clandestine pain, of suffering in silence behind a fun face. She’s like one of those novels where the end-notes and annotations are the best bit. The Marvellous Ms Marginalia.
In the second season, our relationship gets trickier. The girl called “Fleabag"—like most characters on the show, we are never told her actual name—is ever more reliant on us, cutting away from her reality to deliver pithy asides all too frequently. The first episode, centred largely around one uncomfortable dinner, has Fleabag talking over her family, barely commenting, only commentating. Everyone notices her acting uncharacteristically silent, normal and, as her hurt father delightfully describes, “not naughty". She’s ours now, not theirs.
Once, she stops mid-insult—halting an articulate diatribe to boast to us, “I can’t believe how well this is turning out" —and then self-consciously falters, ending up calling her target a “weakie". That’s a sign of our getting in her way, and later, in a truly thrilling moment, it becomes clearer. She’s sitting with a priest she is madly attracted to—“Hot Priest", according to the credits (and the smitten internet)—who tells her they can only be friends. “We’ll last a week," she flashes at us, marking intent and letting us know what we and she are in for, but (and here’s the magic) he catches her.
“What was that?" Played by a keen-eyed Andrew Scott, Hot Priest notices Fleabag back away. He has caught her slyly addressing us, the way one might mutter a furtive prayer, and accuses her of vanishing suddenly, of exiting the current intimacy of their conversation. “You just went somewhere." Fleabag panics, and—for the space of a gorgeous gasp—so do we.
The 1918 film Men Who Have Made Love To Me featured the author Mary MacLane (on whose confessional writing the film is based) punctuating scenes about her affairs by talking to the camera, cigarette in hand. Women are breaking the fourth wall often now. Gentleman Jack, streaming on Hotstar, is based on the audacious diaries of high-society lesbian Anne Lister, and Suranne Jones, who plays the charismatic Lister, pooh-poohs the 1832 setting by reading her diary entries at us.
Waller-Bridge’s method may be closest in texture to the very finest fourth-wall breaking scene, the Marshall McLuhan moment from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Allen’s Alvy Singer stands in the line of a movie theatre with Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton. An odious academic behind them pontificates about Fellini and Beckett, and Alvy, after repeatedly whingeing to Annie, who finds his complaints tiresome, turns to us to complain (we can’t complain back). The academic hears this and protests, saying he has a valid opinion about the philosopher Marshall McLuhan. A fed-up Alvy yanks the actual McLuhan into the film, who then chastises the man, saying he knows nothing of his work. “Boy," Alvy smiles at us, “don’t you wish life were like this?"
We really do. Waller-Bridge combines that wish-fulfilment of the self-involved character and a captive audience with another terrific Annie Hall gag, where Annie and Alvy make awkward early conversation while subtitles let us in on what they are thinking. Annie claims she “dabbles" in photography, then berates herself in her head: “I dabble? Listen to me. What a jerk."
Waller-Bridge, who also created the delicious spy thriller Killing Eve and is rewriting the next James Bond script, is a fearless storyteller. When Fleabag says she doesn’t believe in God, a painting falls from the church wall (“I love it when He does that," laughs Hot Priest). The show’s sexiest moment comes with her at her most vulnerable, in a confessional booth, a time when she’s pointedly avoiding us.
Fleabag has become, unexpectedly, a show about faith. It holds universal truths (like the way a great hair day shows up at the worst possible time) and makes us wonder why we believe what we do. The way Waller-Bridge deals with us—via the swiftest side-eye—makes the audience feel seen. We want to keep pace with her wit, desperately wanting to believe we are as clever. Ours is a co-dependent relationship, where we enable the character’s unhealthy retreats from reality because we demand dibs on her coolth. We really aren’t meant to be.
Who among the self-obsessed hasn’t made mental asides to an obviously imaginary audience of the like-minded? The idea of somebody coming along and overhearing you talking to the camera is frightening and unexpected, an invasion of space impossible to deal with, and has happened to me only the one time (Reader, I married her).
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen