Director: François Truffaut. Starring: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack. UK, France, USA, 1966. IMDb: 7.3. My rating: 3.5/4. Budget: $1.5 million. Dystopian science fiction.
– Well, it’s a job just like any other. Good work with lots of variety. Monday, we burn Miller; Tuesday, Tolstoy; Wednesday, Walt Whitman; Friday, Faulkner; and Saturday and Sunday, Schopenhauer and Sartre. We burn them to ashes and then burn the ashes. That’s our official motto.
– Here’s a book about lung cancer. You see, all the cigarette smokers got into a panic, so for everybody’s peace of mind, we burn it.
– These are all novels, all about people that never existed, the people that read them it makes them unhappy with their own lives. Makes them want to live in other ways they can never really be.
Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” easily divided the audience in two – some praised the film for black ruthless satire mixed with poetical and sensual style, while the others blamed it for simplicity, lack of imagination and small scale. Probably most of those who have read or heard of Ray Bradbury’s famous novel imagined it differently – sharper, darker, heavier. But Truffaut, being a truly big artist, tried to blend with great imagination his own sensual style and the pressing rhythm of the novel. If you have seen “The 400 Blows”, you will surely recognize the style of the French director. Apparently, “Fahrenheit 451” is not a big movie, rather an intimate tale. It’s also is a perfect example of what happens a talented director is struggling to make a film. Truffaut was obviously not into sci-fi, and it makes “Fahrenheit 451” especially appealing.
Truffaut, an icon of French cinema in general and the French New Wave in particular, who made probably one of the best debuts ever with “The 400 Blows”, decided to accept the challenge and shoot his only 5th film for the first time in a foreign language (he barely knew few words in English), in science fiction genre, abroad and in colour. Both commercially and critically it was considered a failure ($1.5 million budget, $1 million box office) in Truffaut’s long career, but we all know that failures of talented people are often more interesting than their successes. The director himself admitted in his diaries that it was his “most saddest and difficult” film, but with time, “Fahrenheit 451” rightfully earned a strong reputation.
The dialogues and the screenplay are brilliant. The film is a faithful adaptation of the original and Bradbury indeed was satisfied with it (you thought it’s commonplace that writers and rarely satisfied with film adaptations? You were wrong). The acting… it was one of the main reasons why the movie was largely criticized – many considered Oskar Werner and Julie Christie (she played a double role here) a total miscast. But while both weren’t the most obvious choice, it’s also thanks to them that the movie feels odd and alive. Werner is brilliant here, because while he apparently didn’t fit the role of a soulless fireman, but that’s what makes him a perfect cast. Julie Christie portrayed well the bored housewife glued to her TV set, but was not so convincing in her other role – Bradbury himself rightfully noted that it was the main flaw of the film. And who brightened the movie indeed is Cyril Cusack. An Irish actor, whose career lasted for almost 70 years, plays The Captain who figuratively and literally lightens up the screen with his cheerful and sincere conviction that he actually makes a favour to the society by burning booms. There is a hilarious scene with the Captain’s monologue, when he discusses various benefits that people will gain when certain books will be destroyed:
”These are all novels, all about people that never existed, the people that read them it makes them unhappy with their own lives. Makes them want to live in other ways they can never really be.”
”Robinson Crusoe, the Negroes didn’t like that because of his man, Friday. And Nietzsche, Nietzsche, the Jews didn’t like Nietzsche. Here’s a book about lung cancer. You see, all the cigarette smokers got into a panic, so for everybody’s peace of mind, we burn it.”
The plot. Fahrenheit four-five-one is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and starts to burn. The film portrays our near future in a totalitarian society, where any kind of books, written language, literature or even simple writings are forbidden. A special fire brigade controls that all citizens follow the rule. Those who are caught, will be severely punished. Montag (by the way, his name means Monday in German) works in a fire brigade. Burning books is his everyday routine and he has just been promoted. But after occasionally meeting a strange girl, Montag starts to have some doubts about the rightfulness of his job.
While it’s obvious that Truffaut wasn’t really into science fiction, the designs are curious. It’s kind of a different future, where some things developed just like they really did – huge flat screen TVs (although Bradbury still imagined them much bigger), IKEA-like faceless concrete houses, society glued to high-speed entertainment, while others took different direction. The film is impressive in its attention to details, portraying how a future without the written language would look like. From first frames, you will not see a single written word – I mean, even the opening credits here are only in the form of sound. How does it all look? Quite scary. Of course, don’t take it literally like many reviewers of the time did. It’s obvious that the books themselves weren’t the only aim of Bradbury/Truffaut, but rather the whole society. Don’t forget to take in consideration the year of the novel publication (1953).
That’s why “Fahrenheit 451” still looks so topical and burning. It fucking made me angry… in a good kind of way. A tool is always a tool, and you can use the hammer both to build a house or slaughter somebody to death. Sounds obvious. But the world here – remember, a world still without smartphones, obsession in 24/7 online connection, social networks etc – resembles painfully our modern world. There is a wonderful scene, when Montag, who already started to awake, comes back home and tries to have a meaningful conversation with his wife, but he just… can not. She lives in a fake life of thoughtless entertainment, TV transmissions and comics, like most people in this society. As her friends join their evening TV session, Montag is literally horrified by how they are disconnected from the real world.
Still, “Fahrenheit 451” feels odd. Truffaut, compared to many other 60-s and 70-s directors, obviously wasn’t a science fiction guy… but that’s what makes this film so curious and still important, compared to the most sci-fi dystopias of that time that have aged terribly. He wasn’t following the fashion like many, but rather tried to express himself through a different genre, like Kubrick or Tarkovsky. It’s a curious case when an obviously talented director is struggling to make the movie for a reasons beyond his control – and the result may look unusual and controversial, but so damn alive and real.
Worth watching? “Fahrenheit 451” is anything but trite and banal, if you are able to see it not only through pink-coloured glasses. At times it’s too romantic and naive, yes. But still, it easily works on different levels… an angry satire of the thoughtless entertainment-based society? An intimate love story through poetical and sensitive lens of French director? A precise image of an everyday man starting to awake from a fake reality? The film is beautiful visually and has aged wonderfully. Now, since more than 50 years after its release, “Fahrenheit 451” is more relevant than ever. Not a masterpiece, bu it’s an odd good movie.