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The International Writers Magazine: DVD: European Cinema

Day for Night
Directed by Francois Truffaut
Dan Schnieder

Perhaps 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 Pamela).

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 stop production.

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 films.

  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 other honors.

  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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