By the early ’70s, François Truffaut was no longer one of the great pioneers of French cinema. The man who had stunned the world by helping start the French New Wave with masterpieces like The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962) had settled into a holding pattern of comfortable mediocrity. His output tended to settle into two camps. The first were misguided genre exercises that aped film noir and Alfred Hitchcock such as The Bride Wore Black (1968) or Mississippi Mermaid (1969). The other were tepid romances like Two English Girls (1971). There were exceptions, most notably The Wild Child (1970), a film which saw a return to Truffaut’s fascination with childhood. But while gaining prestige as a critical darling, the film failed to re-establish Truffaut’s reputation.
The ’70s saw his New Wave colleagues enter into daring new phases of their careers. Jean-Luc Godard explored new realms of political provocation (and esotericism) with the Dziga Vertov Group. Claude Chabrol inaugurated his “Golden Era” with a string of politically charged bourgeois murder dramas. Jacques Rivette came into his own with some of the most formalistically daring films of the twentieth century with the nearly 13 hour Out 1 (1971) and the bizarro-feminist cult favorite Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). But Truffaut languished in a mire of tepid blandness. He was too established to be ignored, but too antiquated to be respected.
Hence why his 1973 film Day for Night hit the world like a gunshot. Here was the Truffaut who had been in absentia since the early ’60s: a restless, wistful romantic whose encyclopedic knowledge of cinema helped him galvanize an art form. A sometimes exasperated, sometimes melancholic meditation on the artistic process, Day for Night is one of the greatest love letters to filmmaking ever made. Notice I said “filmmaking,” not “film” itself. It charts the production of a blasé romantic melodrama entitled Meet Pamela. It’s no secret that the film will end up being a turkey (Truffaut has stated on record that it was deliberately similar to his earlier failure The Soft Skin ). But that hardly matters to the filmmakers. To be making a movie, to lose themselves in their work, is what counts.
Day for Night follows the film’s tumultuous production, juggling a sprawling cast of actors, production assistants, and outsiders looking in. We remember them in narrative fragments; tiny vignettes where each becomes the star of their own show. Truffaut appears as Ferrand, the put-upon director who dreams at night of his childhood stealing film stills of Citizen Kane from movie theaters. A faded, alcoholic star named Séverine (Valentina Cortese) loses her cool on-set after repeatedly bungling a scene. Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), the nervous English star playing the eponymous Pamela, shows up with her elderly husband who doubles as her personal doctor. The childish male lead Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) wanders around set in a daze after breaking up with his girlfriend, asking anyone who will listen if women are magic. Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), the actor playing Alphonse’s father, desperately tries to act as peace-keeper among the other performers.
But my favorite characters are the production staff, the technical sausage-makers who keep the film going. Though none become as central to the film as the director or actors, Truffaut gives many of them room to bloom into their own identities. There’s Joëlle (Nathalie Baye), the bespectacled script supervisor who seems to be the real one running the show. There’s Bernard (Bernard Menez), the ubiquitous prop man with a nasty habit of turning up in the wrong person’s bed. There’s Odile (Nike Arrighi), Séverine’s makeup artist who flutters around the set with a look of perpetual astonishment. And then there’s Madame Lajoie (Zénaïde Rossi), the grumpy wife of one of the supporting actors who accompanies him everywhere to make sure he doesn’t fool around.
For there is much fooling around in the production of Meet Pamela. Perhaps the greatest irony in Day for Night is that it becomes dominated in the second and third acts by romantic shenanigans the likes of which would put the contrived melodrama they’re working on to shame. People fall in and out of love, in and out of lust; there are breakdowns and outbursts; there’s even an unexpected death near the end that throws the production for a loop. It seems Truffaut suggests that if a film creates a new reality, so too is the world inhabited by those who create it.
Day for Night was recently given a Blu-ray transfer by the fine folks at The Criterion Collection. Featuring a truly staggering number of special features—interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, a documentary reflecting on the rocky relationship between Godard and Truffaut—the transfer is worth every penny. I particularly enjoyed the mesmeric short film by :: kagonada which dives into the Day for Night with surgical precision, dissecting its different layers in a manner that would put many film school professors to shame.