This post will be concerned with Francois Truffaut’s career from 1965 to 1970, absent the Antoine Doinel pictures, which will be discussed in a future post. Based on DVD availability, that includes Fahrenheit 451, Mississippi Mermaid, and The Wild Child.
Fahrenheit 451 was Truffaut’s first film in color, and his only film in English (he was, for a while, attached to filming Bonnie and Clyde, which I would have loved to have seen). It is, of course, based on the famous dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury, in which firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. They burn books.
Book burning is a particularly odious image, mostly associated with Nazis, but pops up every once in a while even in our freedom-loving U.S.A. The opening scene shows a squad of firemen, wearing kind of odd, Victorian-style helmets, riding a vehicle that is both futuristic and antique, to a home where someone is hiding books. Montag (Oskar Werner) is an expert at finding hidden books–false TV sets are a typical place. The firemen then gather the offending material and burn it.
In this society of Bradbury’s creation, printed material is banned (the opening credits are spoken, not typed). Citizens are kept docile by drugs and TV, and told that books lead to unhappiness. Of course, what the government fears about books is that they have alternative ideas, but they have persuaded most that books are dangerous to their well-being.
Montag is in line for a promotion, but a few things start to happen. He meets a vivacious neighbor (Julie Christie, who also plays his vapid wife). Then he becomes intrigued by the books he burns. His captain, Cyril Cusack, says this happens to the best of firemen, but he insists that books are rubbish. But Montag starts to read David Copperfield, and then gets hooked. Soon his house is full of books.
Truffaut handles this high-concept material mostly straight, without filigree or tricks. There are a few inside jokes–in one bonfire, we see a copy of Cahiers du Cinema with Truffaut on the cover–but for the most part this is straight ahead science-fiction, and at times elegantly exciting. A taut sequence in which a woman is found with a hidden library, what Cusack calls the dream find of any firemen, is magnified by her insistence on being burned with the books, an image that Montag can not shake.
The science-fiction elements are handled somewhat strangely. As I said about the uniforms, though this is set in the future, we don’t know how far ahead. For all I know Bradbury may have been referencing the increasing cultural illiteracy of his own time. A few things, such as wall-sized televisions, have the aura of the new, but otherwise there are no “Jetsons”-style gadgets, except for some jetpacks, which are shown in cheesy rear projection.
But this film is not about technical wizardry. Especially noted is a scene in a school, where children are drilled not in their ABCs but in multiplication tables (the old woman recites them mockingly while going up in flames). Which brings me to a question–are people taught to read? Montag stumbles through David Copperfield, reading as a first-grader might. But clearly he knows how to read–how was he taught? Are there no instruction manuals? Apparently not. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but certainly nothing to impinge on the excellence of this film.
Mississippi Mermaid, from 1969, seemed to be an attempt by Truffaut to make an Alfred Hitchcock picture, and he did not succeed. It has many of the elements Hitchcock used, but without the tautness and balance of the master. Instead it’s kind of a mess.
The film also has noir elements, in that its protagonist is a man who acts stupidly over a woman. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a wealthy owner of a tobacco plantation and cigarette factory on the island of Reunion, which is located in the Indian Ocean. He has been corresponding with a woman he met through the classified ads, and they are to marry. When she arrives, she does not look like her picture–she’s Catherine Deneuve–who explains that she did not want their relationship to be about her beauty. Belmondo can’t complain–not only is she a knockout, but he lied about his monetary status, not wanting to attract gold-diggers.
The two marry, and I’m reluctant to go much further in the plot summary, because I didn’t know what was coming, and it was enjoying to ride along with the twists. Suffice it to say that Deneuve is not who she says she is, and when Belmondo gives her access to his bank accounts we can tell this is a bad idea.
While Truffaut idolized Hitchcock, he just doesn’t have a feel for this material. Belmondo, to use a more modern cinematic line, just can’t quit Deneuve, no matter what she did to him. She’s the equivalent of Hitchcock’s icy blonde–I can’t tell if Deneuve’s mostly blank performance was on purpose or not. In any case, it’s hard to sympathize with Belmondo’s character, who continuously does stupid things. There’s an incredible coincidence that occurs when Belmondo and Deneuve, without each other’s knowledge, end up in the same seaside French city. Also, Chekhov’s rule about a gun being introduced to the story is followed to the letter.
At a certain point in the story I stopped caring about these two, as he was so dumb and her motives were so ambiguous. I could swear, though, that the end of the film takes place in the same mountain cabin that Shoot the Piano Player did. Truffaut often put in little inside jokes–the novel that this film is based on, Waltz Into Darkness, by Cornell Woolrich, can be seen in Stolen Kisses being read by Antoine Doiniel. There are other isolated moments of whimsy, such as when Deneuve is changing her top while in a car, and another motorist gazes at her and drives off the road.
From 1970, The Wild Child is a very interesting and compelling film that examines a true story, an example of the “wild child,” a human being that has lived without connection to any other people.
Set in the turn of the 18th century France, the film is about the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral boy of about eleven or twelve who was found living on his own, naked, surviving on what ever food he could find. No one ever found out his past, but assumptions were he was abandoned. He is taken to the society for deaf and mute children, though it is discovered he can hear. He is to be turned over to the asylum for idiots when a doctor (Truffaut himself) takes personal charge of the boy and seeks to teach him to be civilized.
The film is presented almost in a documentary style, as the plot mostly concerns the journal of Truffaut, who struggles to teach the boy, as well as coming to grips with whether he is doing the right thing. Over the course of the film we the audience must decide just what “civilized” means. Do we really need to eat with a spoon? Or wear shoes? At times the doctor doubts what he is doing, and wonders if Victor, as he names the boy, would be better off back in the woods.
The Wild Child is also visually interesting. Photographed by Nestor Almendros, who would go on to have a long and fruitful association with Truffaut, the film has the look of a silent–black and white, and with frequent use of irising. The lead performance, by a child named Jean-Pierre Cargol, is quite astonishing, and Truffaut said that he played the part of the doctor not out of vanity, but because he believed it would be better if he worked with the child without an intermediary.
The film can lead to fascinating discussion, as it also ties in with the Enlightenment, and the writing of men such a Rousseau and Montesquieu, as well as the work of naturalists and transcendentalists. Truffaut was inspired to make the film after reading about such cases throughout history, but the case of Victor happened at an interesting time in history, on the cusp of breakthroughs in scientific thought.
Perhaps most interestingly, The Wild Child makes a viewer recall The 400 Blows, in that it is about a child who is an outsider. Some criticism of the film was that Truffaut seems to be taking the side of the oppressor in this film–that we are supposed to think that Victor’s civilizing is a good thing. But I think Truffaut, like the doctor, was ambivalent, especially considering the last shot of the boy’s face, which is not a happy one, but instead one of uncertainty and confusion, much like the last shot of Antoine Doiniel in The 400 Blows.