6504-oeuvrefahrenheit.jpg

Sad-eyed Oskar Werner: thrust into a world of book-burning firemen and empty conversation, what’s a guy supposed to do? In 1966, under the care of Francois Truffaut, rebounding from the lackluster reception of The Soft Skin, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and its harried, book-loving hero Guy Montag (Werner) was given the Nouvelle Vague stamp. Several elements common to the New Wave films are in order –an individualistic leading man, a rebellion against constricting structures of power, the inevitable escape flight from authority–but their presence alone isn’t necessarily enough to justify taking a beloved book with an anti-establishment message and turning it into an entry in the New Wave canon, a movement which as a whole tends to tack heavily towards style at the expense of plot. Though promising in places, the marriage isn’t quite a happy one, and, unfortunately, beyond a few liberties taken with the source material, Truffaut adds too little to the unique, self-contained dystopia that the novel presents to justify the exertion.

At the time of shooting in 1965, Truffaut was in over his head. After all, this was barely five or six years into his career as a full-time filmmaker, and here he was, a Frenchman directing an Austrian doing a film in English based on a classic American novel. The Austrian in question, Werner, looking in his “stormtrooper lite” firemen’s uniform like a cross between an ubermensch and a choleric Kafka, was also, similarly, in over his head. And whereas before, when in 1962’s Jules and Jim, Werner (Jules) boasts of his “perfect” French accent and sings “Le Marseillaise” to prove it, no subtitles or post-production dub saves him in Fahrenheit 451. Instead, the film bears the full brunt of his heavily accented English, which during sustained bouts of conversation is rendered almost unintelligible, and the film suffers because of it.

6505-oeuvrefahrenheit2.jpg

Concerns about dialogue aside, though, Fahrenheit 451 is also almost monolithically slow. None of the usual tactics of New Wave–jump cuts, the abolition of linear time, breaking down the fourth wall–are employed, although it’s arguable that Fahrenheit 451 is perhaps not a New Wave film at all, but something more prosaically genre-based. There would be no place for them regardless, but even had he used them, the technical challenges of involved in adaptation gradually reveal themselves to be too much for Truffaut to take on. The story is much larger than Montag alone, and the solipsistic Truffaut, so used to chronicling only the lives of one or two, wrestles with this. Stymied by the difficulties of shooting the rigid narrative of the novel in a fresh style, forced to focus on background issues like the look and feel of Montag’s nightmarish future world, the heart of Fahrenheit is lost. The unconditional love of literature–with all its controversies and moldy history–is presented as a love extending only so far as one may use books to rail against the institution of marriage, or to what extent books may be used to frighten and horrify party guests. Important aspects, of course, but not central to Bradbury’s–or anybody’s–message.

With Truffaut frustrated by a difficult shoot and slowly backsliding into cinematic traditionalism, by movie’s end Fahrenheit 451, so torn in different directions by the impulses of its auteur and the demands of its source material, shrinks to a facile revolt against aesthetic dullness (as if it were an ideology). Here, perhaps, the overtly political bent of friend/rival Jean-Luc Godard may have served Truffaut, as without a clear moral compass the movie founders in parts. With the black-clad, steadfast Nazis and monochromatic Soviets the only points of reference for him, the totalitarian society which Truffaut presents in Fahrenheit can be contrasted with the free-spirited existence of those entrusted with remembering the world’s books after they are gone. But, not committed enough to their cause, and not willing enough to disown the culture of forced tolerance which casts literature off as silly and a “matter of fashion,” the hand of Truffaut hesitates. The lasting image of the novel, in which the earth’s remaining intellectual illuminati gather around campfires to rebuild human culture, is instead surreally presented as a camp of itinerant oral historians wandering among the trees, endlessly reciting their literary burdens…to no one. Julie Christie may have an okay time playing for both teams in Fahrenheit 451 (playing both Montag’s wife Linda and his neighbor Clarisse), but Truffaut, at a directorial crossroads and with the larger portion of his strongest and most innovative work behind him, doesn’t seem to know what to make of it all.

by Joe Clinkenbeard

See Also: Oeuvre: Truffaut- The Soft Skin

6463-oeuvresoftskin220x110.jpg
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut

    Hitchcock/Truffaut is a breeze. It’s not a substitute for the book, but it doesn’t try to …
  • Revisit: Day for Night

    Truffaut's characteristic attention to detail highlights the movie set as the most fragile…
  • Revisit: Jules and Jim

    Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film, stands as one of the most acclaimed of the F…
  • Time Bandits

    Revisit: Time Bandits

    Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is one of those odd, off-kilter kid's flicks you forget exist…
  • Lightning Dust: Fantasy

    [xrr rating=3.5/5]To a listener unfamiliar with Joshua Wells and Amber Webber’s Black Moun…
  • Pickathon 2013

    (Photos: Alli Bratt) Thursday Portland, Oregon’s 15th annual Pickathon Indie Roots Musical…
  • Oeuvre: Miyazaki: Ponyo

    Our goldfish-turned-human obtains her agency by adding to the human world the vibrancy of …
  • Criminally Underrated: Maleficent

    Maleficent is the quintessential strong female lead who doesn't need to adopt traditionall…
  • Revisit: The Elephant Man

    The Elephant Man acknowledges the basic desires that lie underneath the most seemingly hid…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: Time Bandits

Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is one of those odd, off-kilter kid's flicks you forget exist…