From Fellini to Fassbinder, Minnelli to Godard, some of international cinema’s greatest directors have turned their camera on their art and, by extension, themselves. But in the annals of great films about filmmaking, few movies have captured the rapturous passion of cinematic creation and the consuming devotion to film as well as François Truffaut’s Day for Night. While there are a number of stories at play in this love letter to the movies, along with several terrific performances throughout, the crux of the film, the real star of the show, is cinema itself.
Prior to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Truffaut was arguably the most fervent film loving filmmaker, wearing his affection for the medium on his directorial sleeve and seldom missing an opportunity to sound off in interviews or in his own writing about what made a great film great (or what didn’t — see his seminal essay on “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”). Never one to rest on his laurels, Truffaut put into practice what he preached, with terrific films like The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962). Yet while many of his Nouvelle Vague compatriots were around this time seeking ever more radical approaches toward cinematic style and storytelling, Truffaut seemed to be getting rather more traditional as the 1960s progressed, and though once a critical darling, he was now starting to fall out of favor. Partly to remedy this, in 1973, he turned to what he knew best: the movies. And the result was Day for Night, a much loved, widely awarded, and truly joyous work about the trials and triumphs of making a film and the extraordinary power of motion pictures as objects of affection and obsession.
There are several fancies and flings that make up the plot of Day for Night, a film Truffaut considered a comedy. As a film crew arrives at the Victorine studios in Nice to make a seemingly prosaic melodrama called Meet Pamela, there are enough off-screen dramas to give the fictional story a run for its money, with romantic advances, flirtations, and all sorts of scandalous behavior one even still associates with “movie people.” Primary among the characters and their respective issues are: Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), a British star who recently suffered from a nervous breakdown and is now married to an older man, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who also happens to be her doctor; Severine (Valentina Cortese), an aging actress who struggles with her alcoholism and, subsequently, her lines, much to the frustration of the other cast and crew; and Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an amorous young man who appears to revel in the complications of love as much as he suffers from them. Holding everyone together—as well as the production of the film within the film—is, fittingly enough, the director, Ferrand, played by, fittingly enough, Truffaut himself.
Of all the actors—the real ones—Léaud and Bisset are the most widely recognized and dynamic, though it was Cortese who walked away with the most acting awards. Léaud, Truffaut’s protégé and surrogate since The 400 Blows, plays Alphonse similar to his Antoine Doinel character in Truffaut’s cycle of films following that young man: impulsive, hopelessly romantic, and fragile (not unlike Léaud himself at the time). For her part, Bisset was the more famous name, having gained an international stardom thanks to films such as The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), Roman Polanski’s brilliant Cul-De-Sac (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Bullitt (1968), and Airport (1970), and here she does a wonderful job conveying Julie’s interrelated vulnerability and allure. While not to take away from these actors, the romances and struggles of those involved in the making of the fictional film, nor the emotional engagement that develops between the audience and the characters, nearly all of whom appear as generally decent individuals, this still isn’t what Day for Night is all about.
This is a film about filmmaking, and Truffaut never looses sight of what he’s really after. “I won’t reveal the whole truth about filming,” he said, “but just some real things that happened in my past movies or in other movies.” The allusions to cinema, as an art and as Truffaut personally connects to it, are plentiful and varied. The title itself, of course, derives from a filmmaking technique, and the film is dedicated to the legendary and luminous Lillian and Dorothy Gish. On a self-referential note, Truffaut and Léaud as director and actor undoubtedly carries on-screen weight based on their real-life relationship (this was their seventh collaboration), and Truffaut rarely passes up a chance to incorporate nods to a few of his own favorite films and directors, with Citizen Kane lobby card dreams and a bounty of film-related books on figures such as Hawks, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Rossellini, and Godard (this last one ironically so given Godard’s venomous attack on Truffaut after seeing Day for Night, calling his former Cahiers du Cinéma comrade a liar and a sell-out).
Having said all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Criterion Collection has gone above and beyond with their new Blu-ray release of the film. In addition to a visual essay by :: kogonada, there is an interview with Dudley Andrew, where he discusses in further detail the animosity that developed between Truffaut and Godard, and a short documentary on Day for Night featuring the always eloquent Annette Insdorf. Archival footage is also included, alongside a slew of interviews with no less than nine figures, including Truffaut, assistant editor Martine Barraqué, editor Yann Dedet, and actors Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nathalie Baye, Jacqueline Bisset, Dani, and Bernard Menez.
There is also an essay by David Cairns titled “Day for Night: Are Movies Magic?” This is in reference to a question frequently posed by Alphonse, where he wonders if women are magic. But Cairns follows that with his own question regarding Day for Night: “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.”
François Truffaut still worked for another decade or so following Day for Night, before he passed away at the tragically young age of 52. But more than any of his later films, this is the one that comes across as a true final testament.