Fahrenheit 451 - François Truffaut

Half a Century of Famous Films: Fahrenheit 451

In the future, the dictatorship forbids reading as it “disables happiness”, so the government relies of firefighters whose main task is to look for the remaining books and burn them at the temperature of 451 degrees Fahrenheit. That is where the title for one of the greatest authors of French new wave, François Truffaut, came from. It was his first film made in color and in the genre of sci-fi (or more precisely dystopia), as well as the first one he made outside of France – in Great Britain for an American producer and in English (which he did not speak). At its premiere in 1966, Fahrenheit 451 did not thrill the audience, and many thought that Truffaut’s four-years-long painful attempt to ensure funds for making this film adaptation of his favorite novel by Ray Bradbury (because of which he had to pass up several great offers), may not have been the best decision and that this film does not fit well in his understanding of film and author theory that he and the other new wave directors (Godard, Chabrol, Rivette...) formulated while working as film critics for the famous Cahiers du cinéma led by André Bazin. Afterwards, Truffaut commented on the time when he was a film critic: „It was not enough for me to destroy a film that I thought was bad by saying it was stupid, badly directed or with faulty actors… I enjoyed it when I could say that the pictures are lifeless, sound weak and that is utterly useless to go and see the film because there is nothing to see or hear from the screen. I was arrogant and I wanted, with all my power, to be heard and to “subjugate”.” In fact, it was Truffaut’s and his colleagues’ way of dealing with the previous generation of leading French directors and their so-called “daddy’s cinema”, whom they resented because they “merely illustrated literature”. In contrast, French new wave film critics respected the American genre film author’s exquisite film expressions and it is thanks to their revalorization that they became regarded as undisputed classics.

Even though such exclusiveness may be off-putting, it was however the foundation of new wave’s rapid success and the reason it became one of the most important tendencies in the European cinema of the second half of the twentieth century. Truffaut’s early works, such as The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959), Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960), Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim, 1961), The Soft Skin (La peau douce, 1964), placed him among the best European film authors. His premature death allowed him only twenty-five years of film career during which he directed about twenty films, wrote even more screenplays, produced ten films and acted in seventeen. The reason why his films were successful lies also in the enthusiasm for American genre films. Truffaut regarded their authors for their unique film language and the fact that they do not convey meaning only through story, dialogue and characters but rather through specific film devices – camera angle, framing, lighting, atmosphere… Opposing the “daddy’s cinema” of the established French directors, in such storylines Truffaut sees the “revolution of honesty” and builds on it some novelties of his directing procedure – shooting with a hand-held camera, use of natural lighting, occasional simulation of the documentary style, abandoning tightly constructed plots, long shots without much activity but with many movements or face expressions that reveal character’s psychological conditions. Truffaut made many films in which these modernist procedures were partly initiated by his thrill with the American genre film and he thus created many of his own genre works.

He mostly directed crime dramas, and Fahrenheit 451 was the only sci-fi film, which turned out to be quite a hard task. Truffaut was not interested in the visual attractiveness of the imaginary future, so the costumes are not very different from the time the film was made and the set design relies on some de-humanized modernist architectural examples of that time. Thus the overall impression of the future is suggested mainly by the actors with their slightly off and often estranged behavior. Even today this clash between the impersonal power of the government and the individuals who are trying to preserve the human values, (even so that each person learns one book by heart so that they can maintain culture and freedom), remains impressive and relevant. Personal drama of the protagonist, firefighter Guy Montag who is brilliantly portrayed by Oskar Werner, and his transformation under the influence of a young woman who belongs to the secret society of literature fans and looks the same as his rigid wife (both are effectively played by the at the time still very young British film star Julie Christie), add to the overall quality of the film that is today regarded as a cult film and is often used as a symbol of dictatorship of primitivism. (Tomislav Kurelec)