Criterion Review: Day for Night


Widely regarded as François Truffaut’s greatest masterpiece, Day for Night also signalled the end of the French New Wave and caused a life-long rift between the director and his friend and fellow Nouvelle Vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard. Truffaut was never interested in being the rebel that Godard saw himself as, believing instead that a director could work within the system as a legitimate artist. In one of its most celebrated scenes, Day for Night cites Hollywood studio directors Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks alongside European masters Luis Buñuel, Carl Dreyer and Godard.

Day for Night is a warm love letter to cinema, but its lightness of spirit arguably translates to a lightness of substance. There is drama off and on the set of Meet Pamela, the film-within-the-film that Ferrand (Truffaut, playing a thinly-veiled version of himself) is directing, yet little of consequence seems to happen. Extra-marital affairs; the death of a main character; mental health problems; all these play into Day for Night, but they are ultimately folded into the ebb and flow of Truffaut’s own enchantment with the magic of filmmaking.

The film’s opening sequence works as a behind-the-scenes look at a complex crowd scene in Meet Pamela; this in itself is an astonishing feat of timing and precision, but is made all the more captivating in the knowledge that while Ferrand directs Meet Pamela, Truffaut directs Day for Night: two ballets layered on top of each other to play out in perfect synchronicity. As self-satisfying as it is for cineastes to watch Truffaut name-drop his favourite directors, nothing in Day for Night quite matches the elegance of this sequence as a celebration of the effort of filmmaking. Day for Night’s other strength is its juxtaposing of clean cinematic narrative against the messy chaos of real life.
While the steady hand of amiable perfectionist Ferrand keeps a tight rein over production, the lives of his cast and crew by turns converge, coalesce and unravel, ironically echoing the structured chaos of their characters in Meet Pamela. The fiancee of Ferrand’s juvenile star, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud), runs off with the stuntman while his co-star Julie (Jacqueline Baker) recovers from a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, ageing star Severine (Valentina Cortese) has turned to drink and can’t remember her lines, while another actress, Stacey (Alexandra Stewart), arrives on set visibly pregnant.
At the centre of this chaos is director Ferrand; while his crew’s voices echo in his thoughts, a triumvirate of iconic dream sequences describe his love affair with cinema. It is these sequences, perhaps, that complete Day for Night‘s statement on the laboured joy of filmmaking. Aggravating to the more seriously-minded auteurs of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s film is nevertheless a deeply personal, warm and human tribute to the passion of cinema.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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