At one point during Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (La Nuit Americaine), Ferrand, the genial film director played by Truffaut himself, is shown dealing with production problems with his film while he listens to composer Georges Delerue play excerpts of his musical score over the phone. In the midst of this, he receives a package of books. He opens the package, and we see the titles of the books, all of them monographs of movie directors: Hawks, Buñuel, Bresson, Godard, Bergman and Hitchcock. It’s a lovely little moment in a wonderful and beautifully constructed film filled with similarly lovely moments, proving Truffaut was the cinema’s biggest film buff. Every aspect of his life on and offscreen was informed by cinema, and Day for Night, one of the late director’s very best films, may well be the most engaging behind-the-scenes film ever made.
It’s the story of a film crew lead by Ferrand that has been given seven weeks to complete a melodrama called Meet Pamela, a soapy story of a young man who marries an English woman, only to have her fall in love with his father. Truffaut plays an only slightly exaggerated version of himself, as are the actors played by French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, a never more gorgeous Jacqueline Bisset, and international film veterans Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese. As we watch Ferrand and his crew film, we get to know the characters behind the scene: English actress Julie Baker (Bisset) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and brings her doctor husband to the set, movie freak Alphonse (Leaud) is carrying a torch for the film’s script girl, and Alexandre (Aumont) makes countless trips to the Nice airport for mysterious meetings. In short, the soap opera offscreen proves infinitely more compelling than the movie being filmed by these people.
What is really explored here is the fragile nature of relationships film people have as an occupational hazard: relationships are formed by these people who are desperately in need of love and acceptance, only to have these short term relationships terminated with the wrap of each movie’s production. In that regard, their relationships echo those portrayed in the films they make, and Truffaut/Ferrand has no qualms about exploiting those relationships for his art either: when Bisset recognizes in a line of dialogue something she said to Ferrand in confidence, she exclaims “He’s got a one-track mind!”
This is a sweet, funny film, and while all of the characters are delightful, the real appeal here is seeing how Truffaut made films. We get to see how rain and snow are manufactured, how everything from prop guns to wigs are chosen by the director, how candles are used, how drunken actresses are dealt with (Cortsese, who was in
Juliet of the Spirits, suggests that they post-sync the film á la Fellini) and what happens when an uncooperative kitty won’t drink a saucer of milk (no doubt based on a similar scene in Truffaut’s
The Soft Skin. There are also enough allusions to other films and film people to keep you busy guessing throughout the film (Bisset’s character may be an allusion to Julie Christie, Aumont’s relationship with his ward an allusion to Jean Cocteau, etc.) Thankfully, Truffaut never gets bogged down in such trivia, concentrating instead on the million and one things a director has to deal with in the making of a film. The director, Truffaut tells us, starts with the loftiest notions of how his film will turn out, but halfway through the production, will settle simply for getting the film made.
(For a double bill, after Truffaut’s film, check out Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971
Beware of a Holy Whore, a lacerating black comedy about a German film crew stranded in Spain awaiting funding and spending their down time making each other miserable. It’s the flip side of Truffaut’s film, an ugly, funny film that stars Lou Castel as a Fassbinder-ish director, a spoiled martinet who manipulates all around him but manages to make great art. It’s every bit as fascinating as Truffaut’s film, and when one sees Hanna Schygulla dancing to Ray Charles’s Let’s Go Get Stoned while Castel gets punched in the stomach by an angry crew member, we realize that Fassbinder lived in a very different world than Truffaut.