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BFI’s Truffaut Season: ‘Day For Night’

“This is essentially a story of human frailties and foibles — all wrapped up in a lovely package and scored by the great Georges Delerue”.

Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine)

Directed by François Truffaut

Written by François Truffaut

France, 1973

A clutch of in-jokes and a plethora of film references punctuate François Truffaut’s Day for Night, an insider’s view of movies and the people who make them. A decade earlier, Jean-Luc Godard directed Contempt/Le Mépris (1963), a dazzlingly shot but frustratingly opaque anti-love story, that’s also stuffed full of cinematic bric-a-brac. But while Godard gives you a semi-nude Brigitte Bardot, philosophical ramblings and (let’s be honest) a bit a of a headache, fellow New Wave auteur Truffaut just wants to enfold you in his warm and distinctly Gallic embrace.

Even if you suffer from subtitle phobia, or harbour a sneaking suspicion that the leading lights of the French New Wave were a bunch of self-indulgent trendy lefties, you should give Truffaut’s 1973 film a try. The French title, La Nuit Américaine is a reference to a method of shooting night scenes by day, using a special filter. But that’s really all you need to know, because this is essentially a story of human frailties and foibles — all wrapped up in a lovely package and scored by the great Georges Delerue.

In Day for Night Truffaut plays a director called Ferrand, who is shooting a rather routine melodrama called “Meet Pamela” at the Victorine Studios in Nice. The film begins in dramatic fashion with leading man Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) stalking Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) through a snow-covered town square, before turning a gun on him. But this turns out to be the climactic scene of the film within the film, and one that Ferrand later ends up having to reshoot.

Léaud’s face will be well-known to Truffaut fans as the star of his Antoine Doinel series of films, which began with 1959’s seminal The 400 Blows. Antoine’s love life was often un peu compliqué , and Alphonse also struggles with his various infatuations. While he goes around asking cast and crew members “Are women magical?”, Alphonse’s behaviour towards girlfriend Liliane (Dani) and leading lady Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) soon becomes frustratingly adolescent.

In the early 70s Bisset was probably best known for playing Steve McQueen’s girlfriend in Bullitt, a fact that is jokingly referred to here when someone reminds Ferrand that his star was in “that movie with the car chase”. Julie, who is just recovering from a nervous breakdown, arrives on the Riviera with her physician and new husband (played by David Markham) in tow. Understandably, she’s a little anxious about appearing in a French language film. Bisset herself confirms that she felt a bit intimidated — not least because this was a Truffaut film. But that slight hesitancy, coupled with her English reserve and breathtaking beauty, make this a winning performance.

Day for Night follows the progress of Ferrand’s work, as he wrestles with technical problems, financial constraints and the erratic behaviour of his cast and crew. (There’s even an underperforming kitten that can’t find its way round a saucer of milk.) But whereas Hollywood excoriates itself in films like The Player, Truffaut isn’t interested in scoring satirical points here.

This movie is both charming and affectionate in its treatment of everyone — words I almost hesitate to use, because they sound rather condescending. Take Severine, the grande dame in Ferrand’s movie who is played by the elegant Italian actress Valentina Cortese. Severine is a lush who can’t remember her lines and, in one protracted sequence, fails to master the relatively straightforward task of opening the right door. As the takes multiply, both Ferrand and the debonair Alexandre are unfailingly patient and polite with her. Professional respect is paramount here, even when a minor character (played by Alexandra Stewart) refuses to get into her swimming costume because she’s trying to conceal her pregnancy.

Self-referential horror movies that enable you to revel in your geekiness are a dime a dozen. If Day for Night had been made by Quentin Tarantino there would have been lots of celebrity cameos and,

almost certainly, more than one death. But Truffaut settles for a quick glimpse of novelist Graham Greene and the voice of composer Georges Delerue playing himself.

Truffaut prefers to pay homage to cinema history in a more subtle way, by dedicating his movie to silent movie stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish. There’s Ferrand lovingly unwrapping his parcel of books about great directors; a car turning into Rue Jean Vigo; a reference by Joelle (Nathalie Baye) to Renoir’s classic La règle du jeu; and Ferrand’s crew watching a movie quiz on TV.

A while ago I watched Michael Winterbottom’s Genova, which borrows Delerue’s joyous theme “Le Grand Choral” for Colin Firth’s entry into the Italian city. It seemed wrong to be hearing music that was composed for Truffaut in another movie (it’s also used in Fantastic Mr Fox), but it did make me want to watch Day for Night again.

(The BFI’s François Truffaut season runs until 28 March)

– Susannah Straughan