Its science-fiction look may have aged badly, but Truffaut’s first film in English is interesting, even though it fails in many ways. The story, taken from Ray Bradury’s 1953 novel, is well-suited to Truffaut’s general style. Science fiction stories, speculative in nature, are well suited to bold aesthetics, and FAHRENHEIT 451 delivers: the colours are bright, the costumes and set-pieces remind us that in the ’50s and ’60s the Nazi jackboots must have still been a fresh memory, influencing the speculative genre further towards symbolic, exaggerated imagery.
Of course it’s also known that in fantasy writing, everything can be interpreted as psychologically-revealing symbolism: in FAHRENHEIT 451, Truffaut wears his inclinations on his sleeve. We’ve always known he was a rebel, coming out of a movement in film based on brazenly bucking tradition; as well as literate and a lover of art, having shown himself as such with THE 400 BLOWS (1959), SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960), and JULES ET JIM (1962). FAHRENHEIT 451 was well chosen, its story of rebellion against an oppressive, illiterate dystopia fought by retreating into literature and adopting it as a part of one’s identity. The meeting of “Guy Montag” (played like a Frenchman by the wonderfully sour-looking Oskar Werner), and “Clarisse” (Julie Christie, who also plays Montag’s wife “Linda”) on the metro is a nice touch. I don’t know if that’s how the characters meet in the book, but Truffaut brings a poetry to their relationship, even though Christie is a terrible actor (though directed well), and Werner appears to almost refuse to act dramatically.
In the end, despite careful touches and a good story, FAHRENHEIT 451 is bogged down by its weaknesses. The dated aesthetic and special effects, although shot effectively, do not stand the test of time. The acting remains the biggest issue: for his first English-language production, it’s surprising to me that Truffaut chose to shoot in England rather than America, using international actors instead of Hollywood stars.
And yet it is impressive that this film still has worth 40 years on, when its special-effects would be “painful” to most of this generation, its costumes and sets laughable; and the acting is undeniably not-good. Despite working with all these inferior parts, Truffaut the artist’s touch is still apparent. His essentially French perspective is different from the English-language films of the time. There is romance, literariness, subtle artistic touches, and an attitude of proud, defiant rebellion that will always stand the test of time.