Truffaut’s trifle in Day for Night

by Marjorie Rosen

from Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, p. 13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

François Truffaut has over the years developed an attitude towards his characters and creations so benign that it’s positively flaccid and indifferent. Though his latest film, DAY FOR NIGHT (LA NUIT AMERICAINE), is more complex and mature than such flaccid predecessors as BED AND BOARD, STOLEN KISSES, and TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, it also suffers from this indifference, one made more curious since it’s a movie which aspires to passion and loving homage. And it seems to me that the critical huzzahs for this sweet but spineless trifle (including the New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture and the Academy Award as Best Foreign Film of 1973) are posited on desperation. Reviewers and critics see so little of value that when a pleasant, competent little picture by a cult figure comes along, they pounce on it like it’s a fresh blue oasis in a dry desert (which, in fact, it is). In their eagerness they forget that it’s just another pleasant but disappointing exercise by a talent whose earn genius had promised us more.

By now everyone probably knows that DAY FOR NIGHT is Truffaut’s elegy to cinema. The story is deceptively simple (which you probably know, too). A film company assembles at a studio in Nice to shoot a movie entitled MEET PAMELA. They shoot it, they cope with personal and production problems, they depart. Obviously Truffaut is delighted with his theatrical set piece in the genre of the circus/ stage-as-metaphoric-universe already explored by Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, Renoir’s THE GOLDEN COACH, and Fellini’s 8 1/2. However, he here spends his passion not on the folk of his story, but on the world of movies. DAY FOR NIGHT becomes foremost an energetic cinematic rebus spackled with allusions and obvious references to the cinema’s masters, from its initial dedication to the Gish sisters, accompanied by a photograph of them in their first movie, AN UNSEEN ENEMY (1912), through kitschy, heavyhanded curtsies to directors such as Dreyer, Hawks, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Buñuel, and films such as CITIZEN KANE.

So immersed is Truffaut in movie iconography that after a while all philosophizing also translates into cinematic terms. When one character, Alphonse, poses the question, “Are women magic?” it’s directly relevant: “Is cinema magic?” Truffaut playfully bursts some of its magic bubbles by showing us camera cranes and scaffolding, by staging a car crash stunt and hosing down the streets with “snow”—detergent suds. “Are women magic?” Alphonse persists, and he’s told, “Certain women, yes. Others, no.” Movies, too. Even the film’s title, DAY FOR NIGHT, refers to a lens filter used to shoot evening sequences during the day—a form of illusion, or a “magic” inversion of reality.

Truffaut, by revealing the moviemaking process to us, attempts to weave illusion by demystifying, but so joyous is he in this concentration that he intrudes on and disperses our focus. Compounding—or causing—this is the fact that there are too many central characters, all stars of MEET PAMELA, and all whom the director refuses continuity or close examination. He can affectionately zero in on a mangy cat or a supporting buffoon, but he ignores Severine (Valentina Cortese), an actress who drinks to forget her age and her dying son, once the young star Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) appears on the set. We're never told what caused Julie’s recent nervous breakdown or how she and her physician-husband relate to one another in private. Nor do we get more than a brief glimpse of one-time “Continental lover” Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and the youthful companion he’s planning to adopt, before Alexandre is conveniently eliminated in an off-screen automobile accident. A girl friend of the film’s director Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself) arrives, but they never appear together. Only Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Alphonse is drawn with satisfactory attention to detail. Truffaut may be attempting to duplicate the random and fleeting intimacies of (moviemaking) reality by handling his actors this way, but he succeeds only in creating undeveloped shadowplays who tantalize but aren't explored to fruition. I wanted more of these characters, a reason for closing in on them in the first place, yet felt the director was manipulating audiences, applying that old vaudeville adage, “Always leave them crying for more,” in the most irksome way.

It is ironic that what we do see of them indicates Truffaut’s growth in perception and interpretation. The historic references in DAY FOR NIGHT recall his own oeuvre and comment on that former wistful, limp romanticism. Here, for instance, Ferrand, the director of MEET PAMELA, may be the aggressive incarnation of Truffaut the artist, but Alphonse is a first cousin to his romantic and diffident alter ego, Antoine Doinel of STOLEN KISSFS and BED AND BOARD, even of Claude in TWO ENGLISH GIRLS. Now, however, Truffaut has less patience for the moony boy. Alphonse, though perhaps more willing to engage women physically than his predecessors, is not simply romantic, but absurdly so. When his girl runs off with a stuntman, he wanders about the hotel in a long white nightshirt, imploring the cast to give him money for a whorehouse. Like Doinel, he may be caught up in the lyricism and possessiveness of love, but his boyishness is clearly souring into puerile petulance. (Truffaut’s brilliant final comment: Alphonse “disappears,” and the camera finds him, his eyebrows knitted beneath a crash helmet, squeezed into a kiddie car and racing madly along the track.)

Truffaut also seems less enamored with his heroine than in the past. She is more real and less mystery. Jacqueline Bisset as Julie, eerily resembling Catherine Deneuve/Claude Jade, evokes the same visual response—tenderness, protectiveness. But the madonna-frail exterior cloaks a well of adult emotions. Fresh from her breakdown, Julie at first appears as an anxious woman, haughty with reporters, insecure with colleagues. Yet she is thoughtful, slipping a gold key chain to her departing husband to reassure him, and herself, of her love. She also feels enough of a kindred bond toward Alphonse in his emotional immaturity to sleep with him, not out of passion but compassion. It’s an impulsive risk, the extent of which is clarified later when Alphonse betrays her. Yet in being generous and womanly she exposes but another layer of vulnerability. One of Truffaut’s more modern and aware females, Julie, like Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine in JULES AND JIM, is psychologically fragile, but her psyche and fears have been too particularized for her to embody the unattainable Ideal Woman. Nor is she the willfully malevolent lover; childish Alphonse and Moreau’s Catherine have more in common there.

These characters, in their unfinished, cameo-like states, bear the stamp of a mature and disciplined conception and hint at being full-bodied protagonists if they were so permitted. Where Truffaut is good, he is still very good indeed, and for a change he doesn't hesitate to examine them for what they are, rather than for what some poetic ideal of his more romantic films might have had them be. Yet here they're thwarted by his own lack of focus and his omnipresence.

For Truffaut ambitiously attempts to do too much within the framework of DAY FOR NIGHT. Ferrand, recalling Guido in 8 1/2, apparently articulates the director’s thoughts on his pivotal creative and administrative role. No flamboyant or impotent figure, though, but “someone who’s asked questions all the time, someone who knows the answers,” he dispenses permission, advice and home psychology with the tranquility of a country doctor, but chooses to remain a wary outsider whose every observation is a tool or future resource. Gently he listens to Julie’s emotional disavowal of life; later he plucks her soliloquy from reality and gives it to her as crucial dialogue. Intense, but at the same time impersonal, indifferent, he disassociates himself from emotional flux in order to maintain his equilibrium, even after the movie takes on a life of its own. “Movies go along like trains in the night and people like you and I are only happy in our work, “ Ferrand tells Alphonse. And somehow Truffaut vocalizing Ferrand’s words underscores the perception.

But even here Truffaut clutters and stratifies as he pontificates. Ferrand is not the movie’s lone philosopher. Insurance agents, producers, everyone ponders Life before fading out of view. Alcoholic Severine mourns, “What a funny life we lead. We meet, we work together, we love. And then when we grasp things...”

Her lament is suitable here. When we grasp things, the director pulls back or changes gears, leaving us with a gorgeous and colorful pageant of the moviemaking experience, but with half-finished, too quickly discarded characters. Characters to whom Truffaut, as well as Ferrand, seems benignly indifferent.

No matter. For all DAY FOR NIGIIT’s ultimate slightness and unfulfilled promise, Truffaut fans and movie buffs appear to adore it anyway. In fact, what’s most likable and fully-developed about the film is paradoxically its jazzy, obsessional quality, a quality rare in Truffaut’s work. Here his loving ardor for the world of movies—his chitchat and theorizing, his pleasure at the behind-the-scenes process, and his elegiac bowing to the cinema’s masters—is finally contagious in the rabble rousing way that a show-stopping number performed by a grande dame of the theatre brings nostalgic tears to our eyes. This homage is like that emotion, born on the crest of sentiment, and genially distracting from the movie’s flaccid, unfinished center.