International Writers Magazine:
Directed by Francois Truffaut
it has to do with his name, Truffaut. It sounds so much like truffles
that it's hard to imagine anything of real intellectual heft emanating
from him. Yes, in his films he shows considerably more technical
skill, overall, than his great rival, Jean-Luc Godard; but even
when Godard woefully misfires, as in some of his early films, he's
at least striving for something.
Truffaut, by comparison,
likes shiny, pretty things, and anything that disturbs that safe universe
is averse to him. Thus, his 116 minute long, 1973 filmic take, Day
For Night (La Nuit Américaine), on the behind the scenes
goings on at the making of a movie amount to little, as neither the
exterior film, the interior film, nor the extra-exterior of the viewer
watching the film, satisfies on any level. The characters on all levels
are rather vapid, if not outright cardboard characters, and it's a tossup
as to which set of characters are more vapid- those who portray actors
in Day For Night (whose title derives from film scenes that are
shot day for night, wherein a filter is used to give the look of night
while shooting in daylight; yet the metaphor of which is pointless to
the actual film), or those the actors portray within the interior film
Meet Pamela (Je Vous Présente Pamela- literally May I Introduce
On either level, the action is purely melodramatic. Critics argue the
film shows how much François Truffaut loves film.
So? Love without action or meaning is rather sterile- the perfect description
for this well made but dull and simply pointless film. There have been
many films made about the making of film, or meta-films on the subject,
even going back to the silent era. But, the two most interesting comparisons
to be drawn with this film would be from films released a decade earlier.
One by Truffaut's rival - Godard, who made Contempt (Les Mepris),
and the other by Federico Fellini:
8 and a half (Otto E Mezzo).
While neither of those films is as great as its greatest supporters
claim, both are superior to Day For Night, if only because they
involve us in their tales. The failure of this film's screenplay can
be laid at the feet of Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard and Suzanne Schiffman.
Imagine 1980s American nighttime soap operas like Dallas or Dynasty,
and transpose them to France, in the guise of film folk, and this film's
reality comes into focus. The basic tale is that the shooting of Meet
Pamela- a sudser about a young married wife who abandons her husband
for his father, is plagued by the real life problems of its participants.
The director of the film, Ferrand (Truffaut), declares, 'Shooting
a movie is like a stagecoach trip. At first you hope for a nice ride.
Then you just hope to reach your destination.' This is about as deep
as the film gets, folks. Reputedly the idea for a film about making
a film came when Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch claimed
he'd never seen it done before, which, given that the book came out
after the two films mentioned earlier, suggests that the old man was
not much of a European film buff, nor a film historian. The conceit
of the whole film is that the real lives of the actors are more interesting
than the melodrama of Meet Pamela. 'Tain't so, unfortunately. In fact,
Meet Pamela looks like it might be prime camp material, whereas Day
For Night is simply dull and predictable. There is a spoiled brat
lead, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud, star of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel
series), the legendary leading man, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, with
a secret gay life, hidden by years of machismo), an over the hill and
boozy Italian diva, Severine (Valentina Cortese), who cannot learn her
lines anymore, and a troubled but beautiful American actress, Julie
Baker (Jacqueline Bissett), who has a history of mental problems and
married her decades older doctor, and whose mother was an actress who
knew the older leading man. Really deep, eh? Then there are the various
sexual dalliances and annoyances of the crew, Joelle (Nathalie Baye),
the anal retentive production assistant, the insurance company for the
film, and the producer (aspects of which were far better done in Robert
Altman's hit and miss The Player).
That's it, really. Once Alphonse's script girl lover, Liliane (Dani),
leaves him for a stunt man, he is inconsolable, until Julie sleeps
with him, then has a breakdown of her own when the actor calls her
husband and admits the affair. She reconciles with the geezer, the
film gets made, and everyone ends up happy. The show must go on,
as they say. Yes, again, the film is that deep- or not, in actuality.
Even the death of Alexandre, during the making of the film cannot
Yet, never in all
this melodrama, is there a hint of insight into the people, their situation,
nor even the art of film. It is all gloss, unlike Contempt, or especially
8?. Contempt, at least, showed a bit of the backstage philosophizing
over a film, and 8? was almost obsessed with the interior landscape
of its lead character, a film director. Day For Night is barren
in this regard, and wholly anomic. Not that anomy cannot be the point,
but simply portraying anomy to elicit anomy is a cheap way out.
The film is nothing but a series of a few good moments and much
padding. The good moments work- such as Severine suggesting she quote
numbers and later dub her dialogue, as she did working with Federico
(Fellini), Ferrand manipulating Julie's hands in a scene, his using
Julie's dialogue about her affair with Alphonse within Meet Pamela-
to her consternation, two cats - one which can act and the other which
cannot, Ferrand's receipt of books on directors such as Hawks, Dreyer,
Buñuel, Lubitsch, Bresson, Godard, Bergman, and Hitchcock, and
thrice showing progressive snippets of Ferrand in a black and white
dream sequence, in which he's a boy going downtown at night, reaching
through the bars of the local theater, and stealing glossy publicity
stills for Citizen Kane, a recapitulation of Ferrand's stealing
of a blue hotel vase for the film.
But, that's all these scenes are- nice moments that add nothing
to the overall narrative. Some critics try to defend the film as being
about the fragility of working and personal relationships, or some such,
but that's nonsense, unless one posits that life is nothing but melodrama.
Others will defend the film on technical grounds, such as cinematographer
Pierre-William Glenn shooting the exterior film in a more exciting visual
style, while Truffaut as Ferrand shoots Meet Pamela in a very static
format. But, again, what matter is it if the story does not benefit
from such technique? By contrast, both Contempt and the black
and white 8and a half are far more visually interesting and spectacular
Day For Night was shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the
DVD thankfully comes with an English language dubbed version. The subtitled
version is ok for those who do not value film as visual art, but most
of the original actors dubbed themselves, and it works well. there is
no audio commentary, unfortunately, but there are some solid features.
There are featurettes, such as A Conversation With Jacqueline Bisset.
There is An Appreciation, by the execrable sciolist Annette Insdorf,
a Columbia University Cinema Professor who has done many bad audio commentaries
on European filmmakers.
Truffaut In The U.S.A. is on the filmmaker's reputation in America.
La Nuit Americaine: The French Connection has interviews with members
of the cast and crew- the best being with Valentina Cortese. Truffaut:
A View From The Inside is a vintage 1973 featurette. There are also
two brief interviews with Truffaut, the first from the 1973 Cannes Film
Festival, and the second from the 1973 National Society of Film Critics
Awards. There is a theatrical trailer, filmographies, and a list of
awards won by the film; which include the 1973 BAFTA Award for Best
Film and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, among many
Still, despite its awards and reputation, Day For Night
is not near a great film, merely an adequate one, whose greatest failing
is its being too long for its banal and lightweight screenplay to sustain
itself. If it lost 30-35 minutes it could have been more successful.
Then again, I may as well grow wings, for the screenplay aspect of films
was never high on the list of the French New Wave filmmakers, who were
birthed out of the atrocious Cahiers Du Cinéma magazine on film
theory. The filmmakers who came from this milieu (Truffaut, Godard,
Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol) were generally not good
writers (with the exception of Louis Malle), even if they were competent
technical and visual stylists. Their writing, as critics, was routinely
bad, consisting of purple prose that dealt with the criticism of intent,
rather than substance, and was usually only undershot by the often worse
ideas they espoused.
Thus, Day For Night's failure is no surprise. It is too
prosaic, flat, and hollowly predictable to succeed as great art, even
if it is an interesting diversion, at times. Compared to a film like
John Cassavetes Opening Night, which similarly details the dramatic
goings on of a stage production, it is fey and forgettable. Say what?
© Dan Schneider Feb 2008
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