Monday, September 17, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.5: Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 67 (B)

Francois Truffaut wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction, but when he read Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, he knew he had to make it. The director’s sensibilities crafts an often remarkable tale of the importance of freedom of thought and artistic expression. That the film is undeniably, deeply flawed shouldn’t overshadow its virtues.

Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman in a totalitarian future. His job is not to put out fires, but to set fire to and destroy all literature. One day Montag meets his schoolteacher neighbor Clarisse (Julie Christie), who questions whether or not Montag ever tried reading the books he burned. Curious, Montag begins reading and falls in love with literature, much to the disapproval of his wife Linda (Christie again). When Montag’s superiors find him out and learn Clarisse is part of an underground pro-literature group, he is moved to take action.

Fahrenheit 451 is Truffaut’s first and only fully English language film, and the writer-director’s English dialogue often feels stilted, tone deaf, and awkward. The film is filled with big, showy speeches that feel forced and often too on-the-nose. The film’s uneven writing also carries over to the pacing, which often lurches and sputters whenever it reaches a dialogue-heavy scene. It doesn’t help that Christie, usually a fantastic actress, seems completely at sea in both of her two roles; the double-character is a Hitchcock trope that Truffaut understands well, but the only clear difference between Christie’s characters is their different hairstyles. Worse still is Werner’s terrible, downright strange performance as Montag. The actor reportedly disagreed with Truffaut’s emotional interpretation of the material and decided instead to play the character robotically (his reasoning: you have to do that in sci-fi). Given Truffaut’s usual gift at getting emotional performances from his actors (including Werner in Jules and Jim), it’s sometimes outright crippling to the film.

But while the film stumbles in its writing and acting, Truffaut mostly saves the day with his astonishing visual storytelling. Like many of Truffaut’s films, the film plays as an extended homage/love letter to Alfred Hitchcock, almost as if Truffaut imagined what would happen if Hitchcock did sci-fi (with a great Bernard Herrmann score, no less). Nicolas Roeg’s fantastic photography brings elegant, fluid tracking shots and crane shots that one might expect of the great Hollywood directors, while Truffaut brings vivid visual imagination, a voyeuristic sensibility, and a couple of French New Wave tricks to the fore. An early sequence brings jump cuts in to draw attention to the danger of a character’s situation, while Truffaut’s general playfulness (a pair of twins each memorizing half of Pride and Prejudice, thus being named Pride and Prejudice) keeps the film from growing too gloomy. Some of the more high-tech special effects shots look awfully silly- just wait for the jetpacks- but when Truffaut grows more impressionistic in his filmmaking, the movie truly soars.

Bradbury’s novel is not, as it’s widely believed, about censorship, but about the pervasiveness of television and Bradbury’s belief that literature was losing influence mind-numbing entertainment. That’s a bunch of stodgy horseshit from a grumpy old man, though, and the censorship angle has proven far more influential and powerful than anything Bradbury intended. It’s certainly what Truffaut connected with, and it’s what the film is about. Art is about personal expression, so Truffaut’s look at a world where art is destroyed to control thought is the ultimate nightmare. It’s very telling that the opening credits are spoken rather than shown on screen: it fits a world where the written word is outlawed. The rulers take on a fascist sensibility as they rule over the people with an iron fist- long haired students are forcibly trimmed (remember this was made in the 60s). Sports are emphasized to keep the people happy and busy. Those who read are punished, and those who refuse to abandon their books are burned with them. Truffaut’s script gets a bit didactic when the chief of the Firemen preaches about the books having nothing to say, but whenever he sticks to action, it’s powerful stuff.

Truffaut, after all, lived an unhappy childhood where art, literature, and film was his only escape (he didn’t care for sports). The destruction of art is horrifying to Truffaut, while its preservation is sacred above all else. There’s a sense of danger as Montag begins hiding books for himself, but there’s also an overpowering sense of rebellion and liberation. When Montag forces his wives friends to listen to him read from a book, one begins to cry after being reminded of overwhelmingly sad emotions. “She cried because it is true” perhaps puts too fine a point on it, but Truffaut’s deep feeling for it makes it bearable. The final sequence, at a camp where Montag is tasked to commit a book to memory with the rest of the underground, is both one of the most playful sequences in the film (“I am The Prince…you can’t judge a book by its cover”) and easily the most inspiring. Dedication to art will keep it alive.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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