Friday, March 2, 2012
It was a labor of love for François Truffaut to adapt Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451: the director spent years raising the funding, and wrote the English-language script himself (with Jean-Louis Richard) with only limited understanding of English. That accounts for some of the film's strangeness — its dialogue is frequently awkward and its performances stiff — but not even close to all of it. It's a strange work all around, oddly jaunty and surreal, filmed with a jagged modernist style that only accentuates how uneasily it all fits together. It's a weird, and weirdly appealing, film that, for all its unsanded edges, memorably explores Bradbury's themes of knowledge, control, the media and the power of ideas.
Bradbury's story is of course very familiar. In a future society where books are outlawed and firemen hunt down readers, arrest them and burn their books, the fireman Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is abruptly moved to curiosity about the books he's unthinkingly burned for so long. He begins surreptitiously gathering books, compulsively reading, gathering knowledge and rebelling against the order that he'd previously accepted unquestioningly. The film opens with the firemen silently, methodically going about their work. They arrive at an apartment and search it for books, finding them stuffed into every nook, including hidden behind the screen of a non-functioning TV set, a sly joke on the oppositional relationship between mind-numbing TV and stimulating books. The firemen exchange no words as they go about their work, throwing books into a pile to be burned. The burning itself is nearly ritulistic, as Montag dons his protective gear (the footage is reversed; he's actually taking off the costume), grabs a flamethrower, and sets the books on fire while a crowd silently watches. Afterwards, the shot of him taking off his protective suit is replayed, running forwards this time, and by bookending the scene with this same shot, played first in reverse and then normally, Truffaut enhances the subtle weirdness of the sequence as well as the ritualistic nature of the burning. Something seems off about the whole thing, as well it should.
Montag soon realizes that he is not truly happy with this job. He is inspired to question things for the first time by his budding friendship with one of his neighbors, Clarisse (Julie Christie), whose pointed inquiries about his happiness start Montag on his journey into self-doubt and recrimination, as though he'd just been waiting for some excuse to start tearing everything apart. He's certainly not contented in his life, which seems empty and hollow: when his boss asks him what he does on his time off, all he can think of is that he mows the lawn. His wife Linda (also played by Christie) sits at home ingesting one pill after another and watching her televised "family" on the wall screen, stupidly sitting in front of lifeless TV programs that make her feel included in the clumsiest, least convincing fashion.
These TV programs are hilarious and unsettling, with actors periodically turning to face the camera and directly address the viewer by name, asking a question while a red light beeps to signal the need for user input. Truffaut cuts in for jarring closeups of the actor, staring out at the viewer, an angry expression on his face as if he's impatiently awaiting an answer. The funniest part is that the show eventually carries on again no matter what the audience says, but Linda still eagerly plays along, desperate for the aura of importance and participation that these farcical, content-free dramas give her. It's a biting and still relevant satire of television's ability to substitute for real human relationships and the deeper substance of great literature.
The film's style reflects the flatness and emptiness of this society, with gray suburban sprawl and conformity occasionally broken up by splashes of bright primary colors — notably the glistening, foreboding red of the fire engine, which thrusts down the streets towards the next dissenter's home, accompanied by wailing sirens and the pulsing strings of Bernard Herrmann's theme. Truffaut's method of depicting the future is similar to that of his peer Godard's in Alphaville: he simply films the present in such a way as to maximize and emphasize its alienation. Cinematographer (and future director) Nicolas Roeg gives the film a flat style very far from the gloss and shininess with which futuristic societies are generally depicted in the cinema. Rows of identical houses line ordinary suburban boulevards, and people emerge, obediently, only when ordered to by authorities, as they do towards the end of the film, everyone stepping out on their neatly manicured front lawns to help search for the fugitive Montag. Interiors are crisp and modern, the walls bare and boring, the decoration minimal. The fire house itself is the brightest, most colorful location, with its bright red walls and the threatening red blast door from which the fire engine periodically emerges on its grim missions.
Even Truffaut's approach to futuristic technology is straightforward: about the most obvious sign of advanced technology is the firemen's pole, which they can somehow slide up as well as down. This lo-fi special effect — Truffaut simply reverses the film, of course — is one of the film's whimsical but oddly unsettling flourishes. The image of firemen casually gliding up the pole, ascending like angels towards their quarters after a kerosene-soaked day of work, is comical and chilling in equal measure. At a key moment in the film, as Montag becomes alienated from his work and begins to feel the lure of books, technology begins to betray him: the automatic door of his house refuses to open for him, and he finds he cannot slide up or down the pole but must trot, undignified, up and down the nearby spiral staircase, a disused relic of an earlier era much like the books he's tasked with destroying. His boss takes this lack of communion with technology, this symbolic disconnect from the modern era, as a moral failing: "something wrong between you and the pole?" he asks in an insinuating tone.
Something is very wrong, indeed. The film's unsettling vision of the future reaches its horrible climax with a harrowing sequence in which an old woman allows herself to be set afire rather than leave behind the books she loves so much. She stands in the center of a pile of books thrown to the ground by the zealous firemen, turning in circles and smiling beautifically as the flames approach her. The image purposefully evokes the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, another woman destroyed by fire for advancing ideas that challenged the status quo.
In other places, Truffaut achieves disorienting effects through somewhat clumsy, purposefully off-kilter aesthetics. Towards the end of the film, he inserts a laughable special effect shot of four flying men searching for Montag, crudely pasted in front of a landscape. It's the funniest moment of the film, a deliberate middle finger directed at Hollywood sci-fi's obsession with slick effects and glossy surfaces rather than ideas. Elsewhere, Truffaut employs equally shoddy (if less hilarious) rear projection as Montag and Clarisse ride the monorail that takes them out to their suburban neighborhood — the glaringly fake cut-and-paste job of these images recalls Truffaut's idol Hitchcock, who also often exploited the fake quality of these kinds of effects.
Even the stiff, uncharismatic performances add to the film's sense of alienation. Truffaut was especially unhappy with Werner's robotic performance as Montag, but Werner's uninflected line readings and deadened expressions contribute to the sense of a man, and a society, cut off from real feeling, while the actor's thick German accent, along with the grim black uniforms of the firemen, underlines the implied parallels with Nazism. Christie plays two parts here, portraying both of the women in Montag's life, but her performance is similarly flat, and there's little difference between the solipsistic, lazy Linda and the mentally engaged Clarisse. The decision to have the same actress play both parts is suspect in the first place: the point is that the women are very different, that they represent entirely opposite ideas of life and relationships for Montag. Having the same woman play both of them, with little apparent difference in personality, suggests only that for the filmmakers, all women might as well be the same.
Such baffling and offputting aesthetic choices dominate and define Truffaut's take on Bradbury's tale. It's a flawed movie in many ways — even Truffaut himself was unhappy with the affectless performances and clunky dialogue — but it's also a fascinating one. The surreal beauty of the film's imagery is a big part of its appeal: it looks like a garish comedy, is acted like an inscrutable arthouse drama, and is overflowing with sharp-edged satire. Best of all is the poetic ending, which shows Bradbury's "Book People" wandering the countryside outside of town, mumbling the words to the books they've committed to memory, their voices overlapping in a babble of memorized literature. It's a moving and mysterious sequence that provides the film's best tribute to the power of words and the human will to preserve ideas and knowledge at all costs.