Following its Telluride Film Festival world premiere, The Wonder started streaming on Netflix on November 16, 2022, causing equal parts consternation and wonderment with its unusual opening scene.
If you haven’t seen The Rehearsal, it’s an American docu-comedy from Nathan Fielder. If you liked The Wonder’s opening scene, The Rehearsal is likely up your street.
But not everyone is on board – see below. In its opening minutes, actor Niamh Algar introduces the premise of the film via voiceover. She appears later, too, breaking the fourth wall a second time. Here’s what she’s said about it.
What happens in the opening scene of The Wonder?
The Wonder makes use of an interesting framing device.
In its opening scene, audiences get a glimpse into the world of film production. We see a house covered in scaffolding, situated in a large studio.
The camera pans slowly around the room, revealing boxes of production kit and lights on large stands.
“Hello,” says actor Niamh Algar. She plays Kitty in the movie. “This is the beginning. The beginning of a film called The Wonder. The people you’re about to meet are characters. Believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories, and so we invite you to believe in this one.”
‘Believe in the characters and the story’
Radio Times spoke to Niamh Algar about the breaks in the fourth wall in The Wonder. She told the outlet: “It was sort of sitting down with Sebastian and figuring out what it was he wanted from that character, someone who is sort of introducing the story but is also in it.
“It’s that idea of allowing the audience to be drawn into the story,” she added, “we’re giving them a wink and going: ‘We’re telling the story, stories are used in order to make sense of this world and inviting you in, in the hope that you’re going to believe in the characters and the story.’
“And then we’re in the story and every now and then, we see Kitty come up and it’s almost like she’s watching everything.
“She’s watching Florence’s character, and there’s that intrigue, because for Kitty, language is something that she struggles with because she can’t read and so therefore I think stories must have been quite difficult because she has to be told them, and she’s wanting to learn to read and read the stories for herself, because that’s a powerful tool for someone.”
Why is The Wonder’s opening scene on a film set?
The explanation Niamh Algar gives within the movie – what you might call the diegetic reasoning behind the decision – is simply that Sebastián Lelio (director), Emma Donoghue (screenwriter, and original author) and of course Niamh Algar want to encourage their audiences to give themselves over to the story wholeheartedly.
But, you might say, the way to do that is to minimise distractions. Doesn’t telling people they’re watching a movie seem counterintuitive when what you want is for people to forget they’re watching a movie?
Key to understanding why the makers of The Wonder decided to have its opening scene break the fourth wall and introduce itself in a self-referential, or meta, way is Algar’s character.
During the course of the story, she learns how to read. By coming to grips with the written language, she is awakened to the power of storytelling, and to the power of giving oneself over to fiction. Addressing the viewer – breaking the fourth wall – draws attention to the fact that it is all pretend. But it also mirrors the plot of The Wonder, and hopefully encourages us to give ourselves over to it in the way one of its main characters does.
Breaking the fourth wall as The Wonder does is actually a very common framing device
Far from unique in the way it addresses its audience directly, The Wonder joins a rich tradition of fourth wall-breaking films, TV series and pieces of dramatic writing.
If you’ve ever seen Austin Powers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Big Short, A Clockwork Orange, Annie Hall, Psycho, Goodfellas, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Fight Club, Funny Games, American Psycho, Spaceballs or Deadpool, then you’ve seen a major movie production that breaks the fourth wall and addresses you, its audience, directly.
And that’s just movies. There’s also British TV series Fleabag, which came out in 2016, plus Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Malcolm In The Middle and House Of Cards.
Sometimes, the framing device of introducing a fictional story doesn’t involve breaking the fourth wall, however. In The Princess Bride, for example, Peter Falk’s grandfather-narrator reads his grandson a story. The story becomes the film. It’s the same principle.
And the reason it comes up so frequently, one has to presume, is because it works.