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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Day for Night (1973)

* * * *
Director: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Valentina Cortese, Francois Truffaut

What can you say about Francois Truffaut that hasn't already been said? He's one of the key filmmakers from one of the most (if not the most) important and influential film movements of all time, and his films have been analyzed to death. All you can really do with his best films at this point is confirm their greatness. So it is with Day for Night, his only film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and one of his most beloved.

"Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive." So says the director Ferrand (Truffaut), in the process of making his latest picture, a romantic melodrama called "Meet Pamela." A behind the scenes drama, Day for Night follows Ferrand as he attempts to make his film while various problems arise on the production, some of which threaten to derail it completely. The actors cause him the biggest headaches: leading man Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) has tacitly come out of the closet, bringing his much younger boyfriend to visit him on location; leading actress Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) is recovering from a nervous breakdown; supporting player Severine (Valentina Cortese) is an aging diva with an alchol problem that causes several delays; and the film's other male lead, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) finds it much easier to bring the drama off-screen through his roller coaster personal life, than on-screen.

The story unfolds as a series of vignettes, following the ups and downs of several on-set relationships - Alphonse starts out with a script girl but, after she abandons the production by running off with a stunt man ("I'd drop a guy for a film; I'd never drop a film for a guy!" the script supervisor declares), he turns his attention to Julie - as well as the revelation that a supporting player is pregnant (which causes a few logistical problems, since her character can't be pregnant), and the sudden death of Alexandre in a car accident, which leads to questions about how the film can even be completed. As Day for Night opens, Ferrand wants to end up with a good film. As Day for Night ends, Ferrand just wants to end up with a completed film.

The film flows easily between its various narrative threads, using its behind the sceens vantage point to underscore the artificiality of cinema. In some respects it's reminiscent of Jean-Luc Goddard's Contempt from 1963, which also follows the making of a film, although Truffaut's film is less experimental and more easily accessible (and, it might be noted, the film which caused the final rift in Truffaut and Godard's relationship after the former declared to the latter that the movie was "a lie"). It's also less acidic. Day for Night, even though it concerns the type of director who is the polar opposite of Truffaut (ie the type of technically competent but not particularly creative director who churns out unchallenging and unmemorable work), is a love letter to cinema that doesn't mock so much as gently poke fun at its subjects. Day for Night knows that someone like Alphonse is ridiculous, but it's not mean spirited about it. The film is, despite it's darker moments, a "happy" movie about a subject its maker obviously loves, in spite of the trials and tribulations which come along with it.

Day for Night has a lot of self-referentiality, echoing past incidents in Truffaut's career and going out of its way to remind the audience of the film's actors' past roles (Bisset's character is referred to as "the girl from that car chase movie" in reference to Bullit), but it doesn't overplay its hand in terms of references (though the moment when Ferrand unpacks a box of books about other directors comes close), incorporating them in a way that feels natural. It walks a fine line, but never becomes overbearing in its intertextuality and instead manages to use it to enrich its narrative.

Whether Day for Night is a "lie" or a betrayal of the ideals that kick started the French New Wave is, I suppose, up for debate. Certainly it lacks a certain "edge" that the term seems to conjure up but, at the same time, it's so expertly made, such a perfect picture of the kind of transient relationships that film sets foster, and of the shared passion that makes movies (even bad ones, like "Meet Pamela" seems destined to be) possible in the first place, that you can't help but love it.

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