Our review of Day for Night (1973) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published November 5th, 2015, is also available.
A movie for people who love movies.
During the 1950s, François Truffaut (along with Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol) was a critic for the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut and his colleagues were dissatisfied with the slick formula of the French films of that time, unhappy that cinema in general was too shallow to be taken seriously as art. In the late '50s, the group began making films of their own, ushering in a movement called the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague), which emphasized the director as auteur, the author of the movie.
The films of the French New Wave are characterized by an identification with the post-war existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, focusing on anti-heroes who struggle to live authentically in the face of an absurd world. They're realist in their use of hand-held cameras, available light, and location settings, and often nakedly humanist in allowing actors to improvise around key pieces of dialogue. The movement, in large part, was about shedding cinema's technical artifice in favor of something more real, raw, and substantive (granted, New Wave films employ their own sorts of artifice—Godard's work is characterized by all manner of intellectual abstraction and winking reference to cultural signifiers—but that's another story).
Truffaut was established with the warm reception by both critics and audiences of his first feature-length film, the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cent Coups) (1959). His stature only grew in Europe and America as his career proceeded. If Godard was the movement's intellect, Truffaut was its heart, creating films that were deeply human, precisely observed, mimetic, and richly emotional without a hint of thespian exaggeration.
Truffaut made thirteen feature films during the 14-year period between the production of The 400 Blows and Day for Night. They included the likes of Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451, and Two English Girls. He'd become revered as a filmmaker, and Day for Night was his opportunity to express his love for movies, as well as explore the intersections of life and cinema.
Facts of the Case
Director Ferrand (François Truffaut, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) jovially contends with production schedules, budgetary hassles, a psychologically frail Hollywood starlet (Jacqueline Bisset), a neotenic male lead (Jean-Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows), an aging and vain international star and Fellini regular (Valentina Cortese, Juliet of the Spirits), and an amorous intern on the set of his film, Meet Pamela.
Even if Fellini's 8 1/2 is the most psychologically incisive film about filmmaking, Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine) is my favorite because it's characterized by love. Truffaut was deeply enamored with movies, both making them and watching them, and that passion shines through in his film. To say it's nothing more than a gushy love poem, though, would be missing much of its enjoyable complexity. For Truffaut, life was film and film was life: filmmaking should be executed with the same authenticity, purpose, and attention to detail as one puts into the living of a meaningful life—it is, above all, a human endeavor. As a result, Day for Night's plot is deceptively simple, its intrigue seated in the minutiae of what unfolds both on set and off during the production of the movie-within-the-movie, and the parallels not only between the two stories inside the film, but also between Day for Night's actors and the characters they play. In other words, there are three narratives happening in the film, two explicit, one implicit: the first is the story of Meet Pamela, the film whose production we watch; the second is the behind-the-scenes antics of the actors and crew making Meet Pamela; the third, implied narrative, involves Truffaut himself and the cast and crew of Day for Night. It's a wickedly inward-looking good time that avoids being pretentious because of the joy with which it's executed.
Ferrand, for example, is constantly lifting words the actors speak in their off-camera interactions and dramas and working them back into the script for Meet Pamela, having the actors repeat their own spontaneous (in the world of the film) words on camera. In much of the supplemental material on the disc, we learn that Ferrand's directorial style in the film is very similar to Truffaut's actual style, and that it was common for Truffaut to present actors will freshly-written pages of dialogue late the night before the scene was to be shot, presumably inspired by the things he heard and experienced interacting with the people around him. Day for Night is densely laced with these moments of parallel reality, as when Ferrand and his assistant director (Jean-François Stévenin, the actual assistant director for Day for Night) look at headshots of Julie, their starlet, and Ferrand observes that he remembers her from "that movie with the car chase." Five years earlier, Jacqueline Bisset, who plays Julie, had co-starred with Steve McQueen in Bullitt, a film famous for its kinetic car chase. Ferrand's assistant, Joelle, played by actress Nathalie Baye (Catch Me If You Can), is clearly modeled after Truffaut's real-life creative assistant, Suzanne Schiffman. All manner of crew members on Day for Night appear in the film as the crew of Meet Pamela just as Ferrand's makeup girl, Odile (played by actress Nike Arrighi), is an actor in his film (much to the consternation of his aging star, Severine, who laments the vanished days when "actors were actors").
Along similar lines, the film's plot and characters reek of cliché—insecure, narcissistic actors; a star grown desperate as she ages; secret trysts; a love triangle between an intern, actor, and stunt man; a handsome leading man (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who turns out to be a closeted homosexual—but Truffaut is purposeful in his use of such conventional scenarios. If Meet Pamela's plot of a young man's girlfriend stolen by his father is the stuff of banal melodrama, then Truffaut uses cliché to remind us that his tale of Ferrand and his cohorts is artifice, too, a product of that implicit but thematically relevant third narrative: Truffaut and his cast and crew making Day for Night. But it's not just intellectual abstraction that prevents his use of rundown cinema narratives from growing tiresome. He directs his cast in such natural performances that the clichés take on a freshness and truth by becoming the behavior of characters who are somehow both stock and round. For instance, that Bisset's Julie would have a fling with Léaud's Alphonse despite her being married to someone else is no shocker. What is surprising is that neither puts forth much effort to hide the indiscretion, no farce ensues, and Julie's husband's reaction is far more akin to something out of real life than it is to the workings of melodrama. Truffaut's deft handling of these well-worn conventions is grounded in his emotional honesty: none of the vital moments in the film feel false, none are treated melodramatically as we assume they will be. The acting is restrained but emotionally true. The plot, and to some degree the characters, may be obvious artifice, but the performances of the actors and overall texture of the film are not. It's a striking dichotomy, and the thing that makes Day for Night a great film, undeniably stamped with Truffaut's unique vision of life and cinema.
Day for Night arrives on DVD from Warner Brothers in an impressive 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Flaws rooted in either the source materials or the digital transfer are minor. Overall, it looks a lot like a spiffy celluloid print of the movie. What could be more appropriate? Shouldn't it feel like you're watching film since this is Truffaut?
There are two soundtrack options, both mono: the original French and an English dub. The French does justice to the film's dialogue and represents the audio as originally exhibited. I doubt there'd have been much benefit to a more elaborate treatment. The English, from what I sampled, is also clean, but it's a dub so I recommend staying away. Don't you want to hear the actors' real voices? The film is subtitled in English, Spanish, and French.
Along with the nice transfer, the disc offers a decent array of extras, including four new featurettes and some archival material from around the time of the film's production. Here's a rundown:
Clocking in at nine minutes, A Conversation with Jacqueline Bisset is exactly what it sounds like. Bisset discusses how she got the role, gushes over Truffaut, details how he was pleased that she was nervous about her French since she was playing a British actress cast in a French film and nervous about her French, and includes the interesting tidbit that she was asked to provide her own wardrobe. (On a side note, 30 years after the film's production, she still looks pretty damned good).
In An Appreciation, Annette Insdorf, Columbia University Cinema Professor and author of François Truffaut offers insights into the film and Truffaut's methods of working. The piece runs 17 minutes.
Truffaut In the U.S.A. is focused on the filmmaker's reputation in America and how, although he never made a Hollywood film, he made frequent visits to the city and was well-loved and deeply respected there. Talking heads in this nine-minute featurette include Insdorf, director Brian De Palma (Blow Out), film critic and historian Todd McCarthy, and actor Bob Balaban (he played Truffaut's translator in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
La Nuit Americaine: The French Connection consists of four separate interviews with members of the case and crew: "Nathalie Baye: Joelle, The Continuity Girl" runs 12 minutes and is particularly interesting when she discusses working with Steven Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can since Spielberg's the only filmmaker to direct Truffaut as an actor (other than Truffaut himself). "Bernard Menez: Bernard, the Propman" runs about 4 minutes, as does "Dani: Liliane, the Intern." Both offer general anecdotes about the production, but little of substance. "Yann Dedet, Editor of Day for Night" is the only one of the four segments in English and does manage to offer some insight into Truffaut's process as a filmmaker.
Truffaut: A View From the Inside is a six-minute English-language making-of featurette from 1973. It's short on substance, but long on awe for the auteur.
The archival material also includes two brief interviews with Truffaut, both running about two minutes in length. The first is from the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and the second is from the National Society of Film Critics Awards from the same year.
The extras are rounded out by selected cast and crew filmographies, a theatrical trailer, and a list of awards won by the film (which is fairly lengthy and includes the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film).
The tag line for Day for Night must be one of the most accurate ever written. It certainly is "a movie for people who love movies." If that's you, see it immediately.
Is there any doubt? Not guilty, of course.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• Cast and Crew Filmographies
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