Friday, October 9, 2009

Fahrenheit 451

It's a curious trend for acclaimed, talented, and generally fantastic foreign directors to go Hollywood. While American directors going off to work in a foreign language and country is rare, it seems that some days every foreign director who garners a little bit of acclaim will make an attempt at the American mainstream. Walter Salles, a fantastic Brazilian director, came and did Dark Water. Takeshi Kitano attempted (and failed) to break the American market with Brother. Wong Kar-Wai enlisted Norah Jones and a loose, pie-based narrative to try to bring his own style over in My Blueberry Nights. Acclaimed Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron went and did a Harry Potter film of all things - albeit one of the good ones. Of course, at least he made a good one, whereas acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet came to do the fourth Alien sequel, something which doesn't actually make sense considering his style. I could go on, but instead I'll focus on today's "acclaimed foreign director goes abroad" film, Fahrenheit 451.

Francois Truffaut is the man behind this one, and he's perhaps most famous for being one of the leading directors in the French New Wave movement. Unlike Jean-Luc Godard, he's a bit less angry, and as a result he's arguably more accessible - though I've only seen this and The 400 Blows, so what do I know? In his attempt at English film making, he's gone with an adaptation of a book so subversive and controversial that it's required reading in many high schools.

So, perhaps you've been living in a cave, and you are unfamiliar with the book? Well, I will spell it out for you in as few words as possible. It's about a fireman named Montag, played here by Oskar Werner, in the middle of a battle to the death with his German accent. Firemen in this book start fires instead of putting them out, though what they burn is books, because books are forbidden. The logic is that ignorance is bliss, and a society of dumb but conforming people watching big TVs (which, due to changing technology, are smaller than mine) is a happy society. There's a suggestion of war in the distance - subtle in the book, extremely subtle here - but on the whole going around torching books is viewed as a way to keep things peaceful and suppress dangerous thought. Through the course of events, Montag has an intellectual awakening, spurred on by talkative neighbour Clarisse (Julie Christie, also playing his rock stupid wife Linda in a well done double role). The film and book divert in interesting ways - something that always annoyed me about the fate of Clarisse in the book is resolved in a more sentimental but better executed manner here - but the spirit remains the same.

This is a very clever movie, but the cleverness never overwhelms the content. From the opening credits, with color tinted images of television aerials (the viewers of tomorrow will have no idea what those are) with the opening credits read out rather than printed on screen. Subtle, but you don't have to read, which plays neatly into the entire message of the film. The devil is in the details, and this is filled with little jokes and hidden messages that require a bit of thought to fully understand. From Montag taking a bite of an apple in the initial raid - obvious biblical reference, but not overplayed, which is key - to the title of the books - including a special appearance by Cahiers du Cinema, which Truffaut wrote for and was the spark behind new wave movement. A great number of the books were works considered dangerous at a time, but it's such a subtle reference that I wonder if it passed some viewers by.

There's a lot of that, and I think that helps the film. It rewards repeat viewings just by having so much detail there's bound to be something that went unnoticed the first time, and none of it is overplayed. For example, technology continually stops working for Montag the more he reads, suggesting a society that is rejecting him. It's never overplayed, just set there for people to do with what they wish.

Not that all the details were perfect, the production design didn't completely work, for one. I can see what he was going for, something clean, sterile and artificial. Unfortunately, instead we get something annoyingly toy-like. The fire truck and hall belong in Busyland, not a science fiction dystopia. There's one note that does work, and that's a school which is given a very unsettling vibe by recalling images of the Hitler Youth, from the overall design to the uniforms of the children. A fantastic touch, and it makes up for the flaws in other aspects of the design.

I can't imagine someone outside of the New Wave really doing this film justice, since it plays into the movement's strengths so well. The intellectualism of Truffaut is the perfect match for that of the book, and the appreciation for literature goes hand in hand. In the final scene, with people reciting the books they have memorized, one gets a sense of the beauty of the words, and the value of literature as a whole, just from the way the characters have memorized it, and the way their recitations blend and stir together. It just makes you want to read something, and to interact with the world and culture in a meaningful way. That's one of the things good art can do.

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