By Adrian Martin
In a typical scene of Day for Night, the director Ferrand (played by François Truffaut himself) throws down a pile of his latest film-book acquisitions (Bresson, Rossellini, Hitchcock …), while a Georges Delerue musical theme is piped through a tinny telephone speaker. The mixture of unfussily portrayed everyday detail with an unexpected, carefully restrained surge of poetic lyricism is quintessential Truffaut.
Day for Night is Truffaut’s valentine to the process of movie making. Controversially for the post-1968 period, he chose classical, studio-bound, generic cinema as his premise, not the Nouvelle Vague. The emphasis of the film is on filmmaking as craft rather than art (no one pretends that Ferrand’s middlebrow diversion Meet Pamela is a masterpiece).
Ultimately, it is less about what ends up on screen than the collective process leading to it. Truffaut paints an affectionate portrait of good-natured family-type relations among cast and crew in place of the vicious power plays we are more used to seeing, making Day for Night the polar opposite to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1970).
Gentle, bittersweet wisdom is the keynote here, as a rich ensemble of performers (from smooth Jean-Pierre Aumont to firecracker Jean-Pierre Léaud) share fleeting lessons in life, love and loss. The film deftly sketches a very wide range of characters, who are cleverly compared on certain points: for example, their attitudes to casual sex (tragic and histrionic for Jacqueline Bisset’s happily married character once Léaud makes their liaison public, flippant for Natalie Baye as a no-nonsense assistant director).
Truffaut stresses the transience, the fragility, and the unreality of life as it is lived on a set – even allowing, in one surprising and hilarious scene, an outsider to finally explode and castigate these film people for their rampant immorality. Day for Night (as its title indicates) gently exposes the many illusions of the filmmaking process, but also maintains our awe over the magic of movies. Characteristically for Truffaut, the brisk montage scenes – devoted to the frenzy of the editing room, or an elaborate scene filmed in artificial snow – express a deep affection for, and appreciation of, the mundane practicalities of his metier.
As such strangely exhilarating montage scenes serve to show, Truffaut’s cinema is essentially unspectacular. There is no melodramatic underlining in Day for Night, no ostentatious, point-making rhetoric in his mise en scène. Truffaut’s obsession is with maintaining a lightness of tone, maximising narrative flow and conveying incidents with the utmost economy: in this he truly married the tautness of Hitchcock or Lang with the observational grace of Renoir or Becker. Those who dismiss Day for Night as inconsequential or lacking gravitas miss his unique achievement on this level.
Amidst the whimsical succession of ordinary situations, the rare, strong moments of drama occur as sudden interruptions (such as, here, Alexander’s death) that switch the mood. The sadness of these punctual events enhances the keenness of the characters’ fleeting pleasures: secret moments of intimacy or complicity, joyful epiphanies, chance eruptions of comedy, stolen kisses. Day for Night contains some of Truffaut’s loveliest vignettes of this kind.
© Adrian Martin June 2003