Day for Night: Are Movies Magic?

On Film / Essays — Aug 17, 2015
Day for Night

By 1973, François Truffaut was no longer the iconoclastic critic turned director of 1959’s The 400 Blows, the man who’d caused a sensation at Cannes and overturned the old order. For better or worse, as he began his thirteenth feature as director, he was the new mainstream, a paid-up member of the moviemaking establishment. His films had movie stars and were often genre yarns, or else quasi sequels to his first hit.

After the unquestioned triumph of feature number three, Jules and Jim, in 1962, Truffaut’s productiveness had sometimes seemed to outstrip his reliability. His attempts to mimic his idol Alfred Hitchcock with the taut visual storytelling and Bernard Herrmann scores of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), while still hanging on to his reputation as a ludic nouvelle vague experimentalist, did not wholly convince. There were still masterpieces—The Wild Child (1970) is surely one—but entire movies like Mississippi Mermaid (1969) seemed curiously unfelt and unlived, finger exercises for a filmmaker whose work had once consistently burned with an uncontainable urge to tell personal stories nobody else could.

I’m being harsh about a filmmaker I really love as much as all cinephiles are supposed to. If Truffaut’s later work oscillates between beautiful, passionate pictures like The Green Room (1978) and filmography filler like A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972), that shouldn’t take anything away from the former, where the director is fully engaged, turning his tender intensity on a fresh story that really excites him.

And probably no story since The 400 Blows had excited Truffaut as much as Day for Night. After all, it’s a film about filmmaking from a celebrated film lover; it’s hard to see how the subject could have failed to energize him. But somehow, despite our high expectations, the movie still manages to surprise us with how good it is—it’s magical, in fact. Nothing in it feels like the product of meticulous design, even as the craft behind the simplest moments of a feature film is exposed. Depicting the shoot, from first day to last, of a movie called Meet Pamela, Day for Night seems effortless, as if this was the movie Truffaut had been preparing for all his life.

“Are women magic?” Alphonse, the young actor played by Truffaut’s frequent star Jean-Pierre Léaud, keeps asking. Are movies magic? By peeling away the layers of performance and craft, Truffaut seems to be asking that question, and finding that even when we see the celluloid unspool and the soundtrack frizz, hear the offscreen arguments, and experience the plans gone awry, some essence of the wondrous remains.

It’s hard to believe that the movie’s structure had never been used before, but I don’t think it had. In many ways, Day for Night plays as a mockumentary, an impression strengthened by Truffaut’s appearance as the director, Ferrand, and Léaud’s as Alphonse. The third team member playing himself is composer Georges Delerue, who is heard only over the phone but is referred to by his full name.

Getting music into a realist film can be tricky, and there’s something very interesting about the way Truffaut drips Delerue’s score into this one, right from the start. The movie opens with snippets of a music recording session, with vocal interruptions and abrupt segues, played under the titles as the film’s optical soundtrack wiggles screen left (is this only the second official screen appearance by the soundtrack, after Disney’s Fantasia?). Thus the score is initially robbed of its purity, its status as nondiegetic commentary on the action by an omniscient observer. It’s merely part of the process, like the blue sans serif title—a regular ­nouvelle vague feature—that appears screen right.

The famous opening image, an elaborate crane shot floating through a town square, is not merely that familiar twist where the action observed turns out to be a scene from a movie. By showing another take, with the assistant director’s voice megaphoning over the top, Truffaut begins to make us aware of the artifice involved in any movie scene. And the film establishes its documentary approach—there’s even a behind-the-scenes film crew to get quotes from the chief players. Amusingly, the two leading men both summarize the plot from the point of view of their own character; it’s a film about them.

Delerue’s music returns at the end of this first day’s shooting, triumphant trumpets greeting the arcing of the camera crane as we pull back just far enough to see that even the buildings are fake, plaster facades, with nothing behind them but scaffolding. But though Truffaut wishes to explore the fakery of cinema, the score tells us that he has no wish to rob it of its glamour.

Back to the Atlantic Hotel—is it named after the establishment in F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh? Or does it point a route to America, like the film’s French title, La nuit américaine (the equivalent of day for night in English for referring to the technique of shooting nighttime scenes in daylight), or the caption dedicating the movie to the silent stars the Gish sisters—suggesting the dominance of Hollywood over Truffaut/Ferrand’s dreams?

The director’s brief snippets of voice-over initially seem like interview sound bites, maintaining the documentary sensibility, and it’s apt that Truffaut goes handheld for the sequences on the back lot, where we’re truly “behind the scenes.” “A director is someone who’s asked questions about everything,” reflects Ferrand. Perhaps Truffaut plays a lead role here for the same reason he did in The Wild Child—because the part is chiefly a technical one, hitting marks and delivering views. As actors like to say of certain things they’re asked to do (clinging to cliff ledges, galloping on horseback), it’s NAR—no acting required. Just hang on and try not to fall. Truffaut’s stripping Ferrand of overt emotion and, particularly, a sex life was what prompted Jean-Luc Godard to call his former friend a liar, in the first of an angry exchange of letters between the two leading figures of the French New Wave that resulted in their definitive break.

Back in the fictional world, the artistic feud worrying the makers of Meet Pamela is the one between the older stars, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Séverine (Valentina Cortese), who once worked together in Hollywood, had an affair, and fell out. (The first part could almost be true of the real-life actors, since both appeared in American productions in the late 1940s—Song of Scheherazade for him, Thieves’ Highway for her.) But tensions are eased when he discovers that she doesn’t remember their quarrel. The trouble is, the perpetually squiffy Séverine doesn’t remember anything else, either, including her lines or the location of the set door. Her suggestion that she just recite numbers, “like with Federico,” refers to Fellini’s practice of dubbing, which Cortese would have encountered when they made Juliet of the Spirits together in 1965. It’s one of comparatively few movie in-jokes in Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, and Suzanne Schiffman’s script, which prefers to pile up catastrophes to not-quite-farcical effect; a later reference to Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game seems apt.

In addition to Séverine’s sodden amnesia, Ferrand must contend with romantic crises afflicting his young leads. Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie Baker, the starlet taking on the title role of Meet Pamela, who has recently recovered from a breakdown—a detail perhaps inspired by Truffaut’s experience directing Julie Christie in Fahrenheit 451, where the shoot was pushed back due to concerns about the actor’s health. When Truffaut shows Ferrand recycling Julie’s words, spoken to him in confidence, as dialogue in his screenplay, it’s a genuine confession: he was always quite prepared to make use of his and other people’s lives in the name of art (just ask his parents, who never spoke to him again after he exposed the family’s dysfunction in The 400 Blows).

Music reenters the film when Delerue himself calls up to play some of it down the phone line to his director, and its gently spreading glow becomes a romantic accompaniment to Ferrand’s unpacking of a parcel of movie books. Intellectual product placement: we see monographs on Buñuel, Hitchcock, Rossellini, Dreyer. The fetishistic love of books as objects recalls Fahrenheit 451.

Having smuggled its way back into the film, the score can now shiver with excitement as Julie is met at the airport, but it is soon drowned out by the hubbub of press. A plaintive note is sounded when the actress presents her new husband and doctor. There’s something tentative about these musical intrusions, a backing away from anything fulsomely emotional that might turn the characters’ offscreen lives into soap opera. The same goes for Alexandre’s rendezvous with his young male lover at the airport, where Truffaut provides hesitant little freeze-frames and Delerue a nervous hum. When Alexandre rides in a car with Julie’s husband, the score is recessive enough to pass for the car radio. Contrast this with the shimmer of strings that plays over a simple image of celluloid and magnetic soundtrack unspooling into a trim bin. The joy of film is audible and tactile (“I have licked celluloid,” Jerry Lewis once confessed).

And so to the next montage, and the next. Day for Night may be unique in the way that it seems to come more alive in its montages than in its individual story lines. After all, these miniature lives really matter only insofar as they come together for a single orchestrated event, a movie (whether it be Meet Pamela or Day for Night). And the little details Truffaut selects to show the artifice of film are all delightful, from the trick candle to the awkward way Alphonse has to walk over camera tracks. (Michael Caine once asked John Huston why he required his actors to cross the tracks so often, since it was rather tricky to do. Huston replied that if the characters can cross the tracks, then the tracks don’t exist, and if the tracks don’t exist, then the camera doesn’t exist, and if the camera doesn’t exist, the whole thing is real.)

Maybe this team spirit is why nobody seems very upset when Alexandre, a popular star and the only actor not to have caused any major anxiety thus far, abruptly dies. This kind of thing is merely a temporary obstruction, and everyone’s energy quickly becomes absorbed in reworking the script and shooting action with a stand-in to cover the absent player. Truffaut may have been inspired in part by hearing of Hitchcock’s difficulties in 1969, when he was forced to construct a new ending for Topaz after preview audiences rejected his first attempts and all the actors had gone home: he had to show a character’s death without showing the character. But the specific problem of shooting around a dead star had been posed by actors as disparate as Jean Harlow and, ahem, Bela Lugosi.

In the end, for all his solemn devotion to cinema, Ferrand does not seem to be making a particularly great film. The compromises forced on him by the death of a star mean he must cut the most beautiful scene we see, the costume ball. Meet Pamela, a family melodrama with an international cast and sunny locations, seems more like a Love on the Run (1979) or a Woman Next Door (1981) than a Wild Child or, indeed, a Day for Night: a charming in-between project rather than a major statement. Ferrand sees this kind of modest film as something that won’t exist for much longer, a prophecy that, like the Death of Cinema, is forever threatening to come true.

Delerue’s music takes on one last task before the exuberant fanfares of the end titles. Throughout the film, Ferrand has been plagued by a recurring dream. The camera swoops in low as he tosses in delirium, and each time we glimpse a little more of his black-and-white nocturnal vision. And each time, Truffaut ladles on a little more cinematic pizzazz, until the final nightmare comes replete with superimposed neon signage, like a thirties Slavko Vorkapich montage, and a strange image of a little boy in a suit (as if fugitive from a wedding or funeral), tapping his cane with exaggerated echo, which resolves into a memory of stealing Citizen Kane stills from a cinema foyer. Delerue sizzles it up into a noir thriller with more frissons of strings, before relaxing into something more melancholy and romantic. The eight-by-ten glossies are adored by the camera with the same fetishistic attention given Ferrand’s movie books earlier; the objects of cinema must be worshipped as graven images. Perhaps the dream is prompted by a sense of guilt on Ferrand’s part: did the little blighter need to swipe all the stills? But this is really an origin myth about the start of Truffaut’s own slide into complete immersion in the cinema. He never understood how directors could also like sports or politics—shouldn’t the passion be all-consuming? As Martin Scorsese has said of his own addiction, “As with drugs, the cure for movies was more movies.” Or take Buster Keaton: “When we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamt ’em.” Making movies can be a way for a movie lover to live inside movies. And once in a while, such a filmmaker might create something so beautiful the audience will want to climb inside too.