Fahrenheit 451 (1966)


UK/France; François Truffaut

All Audiences

Guy Montag (Oscar Werner) is a placid cog into the giant oppressive wheel of a dystopian Big-Brother society in which, to destroy all seeds of independent thinking, books and reading are outlawed. He is a fireman, whose main duty is not putting out fires, but rather finding and destroying books hidden by dissidents of the regime. An apparently fortuitous encounter with a young and bubbly teacher (Julie Christie) will prompt him to reconsider his life ethics and question the world around him. Rediscovering the power of words through the books he furtively saves from the flames, Montag risks everything he painstakingly built until now, including his marriage, but he gains the right to be angry and revolted, after years of voluntary and passive servitude.

Truffaut’s game has probably never been more intricate than when he tries – blatantly – to make it simple. In the wake of fascism (and of George Orwell) and at the height of the Cold War, dystopias were a very prized genre, no matter the medium, on paper or on the silver screen. Truffaut enrolled for a large mainstream picture, big enough to consider the likes of Paul Newman, Peter O'Toole or Montgomery Clift in lead role. Fahrenheit 451 is not Nouvelle Vague, however is never feels like a compromise, but rather like an experiment willingly undertaken. At times, under the polish of the Hollywood canon, it seethes with a rebel, uncanny creative energy that sets it apart from similar endeavors. Truffaut’s aesthetic signature is discreet but lends the ensemble a distinct visual aura.

What is truly disappointing, though, is the world-building and, to a lesser extent, Montag’s evolution arc. These two aspects are strongly interconnected, though: we never feel the stifling tension of this dystopian world and, consequently, cannot fully appreciate the belated blossoming of Montag’s independence.

Despite that, Fahrenheit 451 remains an intellectually layered experienced, mainly because Truffaut purposely enriches Bradbury’s denunciation of totalitarianism with a philosophical musing on the demise of language in our present societies. Without words to articulate our feelings, the human spirit is robotized. Uncannily, in Fahrenheit 451, the main nemesis is not the government but the people’s blindness that perpetuate the system even without the establishement's formidable deployment of repressive forces.

While Fahrenheit is not as terrifying, dense and moving as one could have expected, it remains beyond doubt a rewarding sit, graced visually by Truffaut’s flair and emotionally by Werner’s eerily disincarnated yet humane performance.  

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