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Day for Night (1973), directed by and starring Franois Truffaut, may be the most beloved film ever made about filmmaking. The title comes from a technical term - the idiomatic French title, La Nuit amricaine, refers to shooting a nighttime scene in daylight with a special filter on the lens. But this exuberant movie doesn't thrive on technicalities. What matters is the mlange of comedy, tragedy, suspense, and sex appeal that Truffaut packs into almost every minute.
All this plus a top-flight international cast and sunny French Riviera settings add up to a smart, high-spirited classic. It's been certified as such, earning many prizes after its 1973 release, including three Academy Award nominations and top honors in the same three categories - Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Italian star Valentina Cortese as Best Supporting Actress - from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.
As its French and English titles both suggest, Day for Night is a tribute to cinema's capacity for creating grand illusions - fictions, fantasies, and visions that move and fascinate us (if they're properly done) even though we know they aren't real. Fittingly, the story begins with a bit of trompe l'oeil. A man strides down a city sidewalk; another man walks up to him; a pause ensues; and then the first resoundingly slaps the second in the face. High drama! Or is it? A voice yells "cut," the action stops, and the camera pulls back to show a movie crew filming the incident we've just seen. This isn't a particularly original trick, but it introduces a major theme of Day for Night - the interplay between the hard, often tedious, highly physical labor of making movies and the magic that results when everything goes right.
The movie being made in Day for Night is called "Meet Pamela," and like the science-fiction production in Federico Fellini's sublime 8 (1963), it doesn't look like something we'll all line up to see when it's finished. It's a melodrama about a Frenchman whose new British wife falls in love with his father, leading to heartbreak and misfortune. The man in "Meet Pamela" is played by an actor named Alphonse, and Alphonse is played by Jean-Pierre Laud, one of Truffaut's favorite and most frequent collaborators. Also in the cast are Cortese as Severine, an aging actress who has trouble remembering her lines; English star Jacqueline Bisset as the female lead in "Meet Pamela," just recovered from a nervous breakdown; Jean-Pierre Aumont as Alexandre, a dignified leading man in the last stages of his career; Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart as Stacey, who didn't reveal she was pregnant when she signed to do the picture; Nathalie Baye as Joelle, an indispensable assistant; and more.
Coordinating and choreographing their efforts is Ferrand, the director of "Meet Pamela," played by Truffaut, the director of Day for Night. Like the actual filmmaker, the fictional filmmaker is an energetic professional whose brisk, no-nonsense demeanor covers a passionate love for his profession. Ferrand's devotion to cinema is so intense that anxieties haunt his restless nights; in dream sequences that combine a touch of 8 with memories from Truffaut's own childhood, we see Ferrand as a boy groping his way down a darkened street, finally reaching a shuttered movie theater where he gets past the guard rails and steals all the publicity photos on display - stills from Citizen Kane (1941), another film about an outwardly successful man with deep-rooted apprehensions he keeps hidden from the world.
Truffaut could easily have made Ferrand the sort of New Wave whiz kid he himself had been a few years earlier, but he went in a more interesting direction. In a profession that demands constant fortitude and stamina, Ferrand is a less-than-perfect specimen - he's deaf in one ear, for instance - and he never claims to have the ideal solution for every problem. A movie director, he says at one point, is someone "who's asked questions about everything. Sometimes he knows the answer." There's no sentimentality in that remark, although there's no false humility either.
Ferrand's hearing aid carries another meaning as well. Early in the film we learn that artillery fire during World War II caused his partial deafness. Truffaut was only a child then, but during the Algerian War he joined the French army and then refused to fight, landing in jail as a deserter. Truffaut never hid this fact - his onscreen alter ego, Antoine Doinel, is in the same fix at the beginning of Stolen Kisses (1968) - so giving Ferrand a military past wasn't an effort to whitewash his own history. It's meant to show that Ferrand came of age in an older, bygone time: the golden age of the studio system, when personal expression and experiments in style weren't allowed unless they fit within patterns and conventions that moviegoers loved and expected.
Near the end of Day for Night one of the older characters unexpectedly dies, and Ferrand sees this as a sign that the old tradition of filmmaking is giving way to a new era when young, independent directors will vacate the studios and shoot their movies in real places on the fly - exactly what Truffaut and the other New Wave rebels did when they arrived on the scene. Day for Night is, among many other things, a fond farewell to the studio-dominated cinema that the New Wave revolution challenged and transformed.
I've visited enough movie shoots to see how accurately Day for Night depicts the camaraderie and community that blossom when a cast and crew plunge into their collective work. And I knew Truffaut well enough to verify that his benevolent nature and focused intellect are present in every aspect of the picture. At one point Alphonse is driven to despair by a romantic crisis and Ferrand has to bring him back to earth. "No one's private life runs smoothly," he tells the young actor. "That only happens in the movies. No traffic jams, no dead periods - movies go along like trains in the night. And people like you and me are only happy in our work." Ferrand speaks those words, but they come directly from Truffaut's heart.
Director: Franois Truffaut
Producer: Marcel Berbert
Screenplay: Franois Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, Suzanne Schiffman
Cinematographer: Pierre-William Glenn
Film Editing: Martine Barraqu, Yann Dedet
Art Direction: Damien Lanfranchi
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Jacqueline Bisset (Julie), Valentina Cortese (Severine), Dani (Liliane), Alexandra Stewart (Stacey), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Alexandre), Jean Champion (Bertrand), Jean-Pierre Laud (Alphonse), Franois Truffaut (Ferrand), Nike Arrighi (Odile), Nathalie Baye (Joelle), David Markham (Dr. Nelson), Bernard Menez (Bernard), Gaston Joly (Lajoie), Znade Rossi (Madame Lajoie), Walter Bal (Walter), J.F. Stevenin (Jean- Franois).
by David Sterritt