Day for Night
The worst-kept secret about filmmaking is that it is a frustratingly glacial and piecemeal process so crowded with "collaborators" insecure actors, intrusive producers, assorted eccentric crew members that it's a wonder the director emerges from the whole endeavor with his sanity intact, much less a movie actually worth watching. It's a profession that's been metaphorically linked to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and indeed, many directors do fall victim to their most-crazed tyrannical impulses as a means of bringing order to that which is inherently chaotic. This approach has proven quite effective for many a legendary filmmaker, but it also drains the process of its spontaneity and, it would seem, its joy. Without the presence of the latter, it's impossible to imagine François Truffaut ever stepping behind the camera. Beginning with his days as a passionate (sometimes vitriol-spewing) critic for the venerable French film journal Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut was a man in love with the possibilities of the medium. When challenged by the detractors he so eloquently savaged in the pages of Cahiers to try making films himself, he shot out of the gate in with The 400 Blows and won Best Director at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for his troubles. More important than the acclaim, however, was Truffaut's discovery that the process of filmmaking, while rigorous, was every bit as rewarding as writing about it, which, perhaps, made it inevitable that he would eventually cast his gaze on the joy of the craft itself. Day for Night (industry jargon for shooting nighttime scenes during the day) is Truffaut's love-letter not only to the delicate alchemy of making movies, but to the bygone golden age of Hollywood. The story concerns the making of Meet Pamela, a melodramatic trifle about an older man romancing his son's fiancée. Truffaut plays the film's director, a near-deaf stand-in for himself named Ferrand, who must keep the film from derailing when the on-set drama begins to spin deliriously out of control. For starters, there's the emotionally immature lead actor Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who has proposed marriage to the promiscuous script girl Liliane (Dani), who in turn is likely shagging half the male members of the crew. Or how about the older leading man Alexander, who's surreptitiously traipsing off to the airport for unknown reasons? Then, there's Severine (Valentina Cortese), the aging former movie star who's drowning her fading career in booze, and blowing take after take as a result. However, most vital to the production is Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), the glamorous young English movie star making her return to acting after a well-publicized breakdown that led her to marrying her doctor. Negotiating these potential landmines proves a monumental challenge for Ferrand, but he remains remarkably calm in the face of lovers' quarrels, uncooperative animal actors, and even a late-production tragedy that threatens to compromise the entire picture.
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Though it's one of the least thematically substantial films of Truffaut's career, Day for Night easily ranks as his most purely entertaining, which is precisely its intent. From the opening dedication to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, to the grandiose crane shots of crane shots scored triumphantly by Georges Delerue, Truffaut is shamelessly courting his audience's unabashed love for cinema, and, being a crazed movie-buff himself, he knows exactly which buttons to push. Allowing the viewer behind the curtain of Meet Pamela, Truffaut gleefully exposes the studio artifice, be it a candle rigged for excess illumination from its base, a hastily rigged balcony façade for a building that doesn't exist, or a snowstorm created out of soap suds. But, rather than demystify it (or, as Robert Altman did in The Player, lampoon it), Truffaut celebrates the glorious ingenuity of the craft. He knows we love being fooled (as he demonstrates in the film's opening tracking shot) because he loves being fooled too. Being taken in is one of the great pleasures of going to the movies, and nowhere was deception practiced more proudly than in the Hollywood films into which the director escaped as a youth (which is why the Welles-ian cap to the recurring, seemingly portentous dream sequence is so winning). But the most profound privilege granted by Truffaut is, essentially, the opportunity to watch him direct, which is to be reminded that confidence and clarity of vision need not be accompanied by bullying and temper tantrums. One of the film's loveliest moments features nothing more than Truffaut gently, but determinedly, arranging Bisset's hands over a railing. It is a fine example of how, as Bisset recalls on one of the disc's featurettes, Truffaut "never ordered, but requested."
Warner's DVD release of Day for Night presents the film in a great looking anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include a number of Laurent Bouzereau produced-featurettes that include discussions with Jacqueline Bisset, Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf, Todd McCarthy, Brian De Palma, and Bob Balaban. Also included are interviews with some members of the cast and crew including Nathalie Baye, Dani, Bernard Menez, and editor Yann Dedet three vintage, early 70's features with Truffaut, cast and crew bios, and the theatrical trailer. Snap-case.
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