Truffaut turns to color and the English language in Fahrenheit 451, and it adds to the strange aloofness you might feel while watching this film.
First of all, Fahrenheit 451 is the famous Ray Bradbury novel about a futuristic society that burns books, and you read it in middle school. The image of book burning is very powerful, and when you’re forced to read books in school, but then you read a book in which books are considered evil, well it’s all a bit confusing. It usually leads to a heightened sense of what Bradbury’s trying to accomplish in a book about books.
As a movie, though, the effect is a bit different. I don’t speak French, so in Truffaut’s previous films I had to read the subtitles. That made it feel like I was reading the films just as much as I was watching them. By making Fahrenheit 451 in English, Truffaut helps to take out any kind of reading within the film, and it better establishes the world we’re going to be immersed in.
So in doing this, Truffaut is trying his best to recapture the book’s essence. I can’t really tell if it worked. I found the whole film to be a bit of a slog to get through, and the world they’re in creeped me out, but it should.
We follow Montag, a fireman in a world in which firemen set fires rather than put them out. Reading is illegal and frowned upon. It’s not one of those laws like the ones banning same sex marriage or marijuana. What I’m trying to say is it’s not one of those laws that you know it’s a law, but you kind of ignore it. It’s a firm law, and the vast majority of people seem to be on the same page that reading is bad. It’s remarkable that they live in a society with that much of a consensus on something. Could you imagine the presidential debates in which the two candidates just said they agree on something like… like gun control, I suppose. What if they had the same exact views, and then the guy in Kansas, and the girl in the Upper West Side both started applauding. That’s the world presented in this film.
So books are bad, but of course there are some who still hoard novels, and those are the people the firemen go after. The people with books must hide them, of course, but fortunately reading books is a quiet thing so they’re able to get away with it for a while.
Most often they cease to get away with it because someone reports them to the firemen who come in with the flamethrower.
Anyways, Montag starts to question why books are so bad. This is a thought instigated by his encounter with Clarisse, played by Julie Christie who also plays his wife Linda. Linda is a woman so caught up in the new world (well, not new to them), that she’s so uninteresting and bland. She’s what Bradbury was warning us we’d become in a society such as that. She’s also the polar opposite of Clarisse, and within those two ends Montag begins to find himself.
Watching Montag and Linda, you also start to wonder how they ever got married. They never seem happy together. Well, more accurately, Linda seems uninterested in their relationship and Montag seems irritated with her.
Eventually, through the ups and downs of burning books, Montag starts to read and hide books. His wife rats him out, and the firemen force him to burn his own books. He does so, but then he turns the flamethrower on his boss, killing him.
On the run from society, Montag joins a group of outcasts who love books and who memorize them so they will be preserved for a future in which books are no longer banned.
The ending of the film is actually pretty similar to The Lobster (2016), and I wonder if it’s a given that futuristic films like these are obligated to show the counterpoint to the extreme that the premise of the film is based on.
Taking a step back to review, this film begins with the opening credits, but rather than typing them onscreen, they’re spoken aloud over static images (with a post-production zoom) of antennae, bathed in different colors. It immediately establishes how this will be different from Truffaut’s other work. The color is so vibrant and extreme, like Truffaut was colorblind his whole life up until now and wants to drown himself in all the possibilities of technicolor.
It’s also modern, and the film should feel like its leaning towards the future. It’s a film that isn’t about who we are or what we were, instead it’s a film about what we might become. If that unsettles you, then you’re supposed to do something about it.
The acting is a bit stilted, and part of that is because, like his previous work, this feels very melodramatic. Montag and his wife are always fighting, his coworkers spy on him and give him ugly glares. It’s like the cast of a Lifetime movie about high schoolers set in a paper thin future world. Actually, the whole thing feels like a high school production of Fahrenheit 451. I think Truffaut is wickedly talented and all that, at least for what he brought to the table at the time, but I’m also undecided as to whether this film takes itself too seriously or is laughing at itself the entire time.
Oskar Werner plays Montag, and he’s of Austrian descent, clearly audible in his accent. The accent just adds more distance between him and the audience. While that effect might be a good thing in a film about a dystopian future, it alienates us (or just me) from the guy who we’re supposed to identify with at some point in his journey.
That’s a bit funny, actually. At first he’s the worst of the worst. He’s a fireman, and the fireman are basically Nazis. They even have a Nazi-esque salute and dress in all black. The cherry on top is that Oskar Werner, very German, also looks like what Hitler had in mind when he daydreamed about life on earth. If plastic surgery were a thing in the 40s, Hitler would’ve undergone the knife to look more like Oskar Werner.
So the audience enters the story through a guy on the wrong side of history, essentially. In a lot of sci fi films, the audience enters the world through a character witnessing this all for the first time. Think of the guy in Avatar who needed everything explained to him or Neo in The Matrix. So making the hero a traditionally bad guy is somewhat fascinating.
It also feels a bit deceiving, because everything we know about Montag suggests he’s pretty set in his ways. He’s not new to the firemen force or anything, in fact, he’s in line for a promotion because he has done such a good job burning books. So why does he change? It’s his meeting with Clarisse, but I found nothing about her so transcendent that she could convince a Nazi to stop Nazi-ing.
That’s where it begins to feel melodramatic. We’re supposed to accept that he just has a sudden change of heart, and suddenly he sees all the flaws in the way his wife lives her life. Linda always felt like somewhat of an antagonist (helped partially because she turned on him in the end), but she’s a victim of this world, not a perpetrator of its crazy rules. She’s like any of us or the people who stand in line at 2 am to get the new iPhone. That’s what happens if society constructs and encourages a certain way of life for long enough.
Because of that she felt a little tragic. Maybe there should be a prequel, called Fahrenheit _____, and the number is the temperature at which books freeze. In this prequel we could see how Montag and Linda fell in love. There must’ve been something drawing them together. Maybe they burned the bible together or something.
Having Julie Christie play both Clarisse and Linda makes it seem like part of Montag’s attraction to Clarisse was her resemblance to Linda. That would add an extra layer to the story and make the dissolution of his marriage more tragic.
Man, the story really does feel like a high school drama student had the idea of “what if a Nazi realized being a Nazi was bad?” And then they made a play out of it, showing how blatantly evil the Nazis are as if to tell you, “don’t you realize Nazis are bad?” when the entire audience is nodding there heads, yes. Then at the end the drama students say “we’re all becoming Nazis, the way things are currently going.” And then the audience says “whoa whoa whoa, hold on a second, I think that’s taking it a little too far.”
So what compelled Bradbury and then Truffaut to tell such a story? Bradbury got a lot of things right, like the flatscreen tvs and the earbuds. Those are very common. In fact, 99% of my day there is a flatscreen tv and/or earbuds somewhere in my field of vision. But those things definitely aren’t as isolating as they seem in the book and film.
People don’t usually have three flat screen tvs. Hell, this past weekend I watched this film and several other Truffaut films on a flat screen tv. I’m using the future to engage with the past. Whoa.
So what was it at the time that made these artists think we were heading down this kind of path? Truffaut’s films as a reaction against over-produced, fake Hollywood films extends to this as a warning of what those films were becoming. Instead of making what he saw as a more realistic depiction of life on film, he went the other way and said “look, this is what I don’t want films to become.” Or something like that.
Lastly, Bernard Herrmann composed the score for this film, and that helped add to the creepy atmosphere you felt as you watched it. Herrmann is most well-known for composing the music for Psycho (1960) and a variety of other Hitchcock films. The music felt very familiar, and it made the film feel Hitchcockian in that way, like there was this force fighting against the main character. It felt a little overwhelming, but it worked.
Watching this film in color made me miss black and white. I felt like I noticed the seams of the film more, and everything felt more plastic and shallow. In The 400 Blows, it felt like we were really in Paris, because we were. Fahrenheit 451 felt limiting because Truffaut couldn’t show us the whole world since he had to construct it first. It just felt like we were on a bunch of sets.
When I mention high school drama students, this is what I’m picturing: