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DAY FOR NIGHT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Dani, Jean Champion, François Truffaut, Natalie Baye
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: French, English
Subtitles: French, English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Four new documentaries, vintage featurette, interviews with Truffaut, cast & crew, awards, trailer
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2003

"My intent was to make the audience happy on seeing a film in the making, to infuse joy and lightheartedness from all the sprocket holes of the film.  Moi, j'aime le cinéma."

- François Truffaut

Film ****

Many directors have attempted to depict the process of creating a film.  Very few of these efforts have led to acknowledged masterpieces (such as Fellini's 8 1/2); many have not (most recently Soderbergh's Full Frontal).  There is no doubt, however, that one of the greatest films of this sub-genre is French director François Truffaut's sublime La nuit américaine.

Truffaut was in the process of editing his film Two English Girls in 1971 when the idea of "shooting a film about cinema" occurred to him.  At the time, he was working in Nice around the Victorine Studio backlots, upon which sat the remnants of a large exterior set for the American film The Madwoman of Chaillot.  The abandoned set had yet to be disassembled, and Truffaut wondered if it could somehow be incorporated into his ideas for a new film.  Working with co-writer Jean-Louis Richard, Truffaut prepared a first draft for the screenplay of the film that would eventually become La nuit américaine, or as it is better known to American audiences, Day for Night.

Truffaut initially presented the concept for his film to United Artists.  He was rebuked on the grounds that the film did not have enough commercial appeal or potential.  Warner Brothers, however, felt differently and enthusiastically gave Truffaut a budget of 3.5 million francs with which to finance his film.

Principal photography on Day for Night would begin in September, 1972 and last forty-two days.  Day for Night would be a story about the production of a fictional film, Je vous presénte Pamela (Meet Pamela).  The premise for Meet Pamela would be the tragic love story - a young married couple, a Frenchman and his English bride, Pamela, torn apart by the illicit love affair between Pamela and her father-in-law.  Day for Night would document the many humorous mishaps that arise during this production, with the empty Victorine set serving as a backdrop for Meet Pamela.

The title, Day for Night, contains several meanings.  On the one hand, it conveys the idea of "a French-Hollywood night of love" between the characters played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Jacqueline Bisset.  On the other hand, and more importantly, the title is a reference to normal moviemaking terminology.  The term day-for-night describes a technique by which a scene photographed in bright daylight can be processed to appear as a night scene (these shots were once commonly employed in movies for many decades, but new advances in film stock sensitivity over recent years made these processed shots largely unnecessary in modern films).  Thus, the film's title suggests that Day for Night is a film about films, or more specifically, about the processing of creating a film. 

If the title alone does not sufficiently imply the nature of the film, Truffaut also starts Day for Night with a graphical representation of the soundtrack (à la Fantasia) and with the background audio clutter of a conductor directing his orchestra during rehearsals.  We the audience are thus informed indirectly that Truffaut's film is, at the very least, about the process of creation, whether or sight or sound or both.

Still, is filmmaking truly as chaotic and treacherous as portrayed in this film?  The cast and crew constantly court disaster and walk a very thin line between completing Meet Pamela or having the insurance company snatch it from their hands.  It is often a hilarious journey from the first until the last day of principal shooting.

Day for Night is somewhat atypical of Truffaut's works in that it features a fairly large ensemble cast.  François Truffaut himself even plays a role in the film as, naturally, the director for Meet Pamela.  That director is Ferrand, a dreamer who aspires of creating that one elusive cinematic masterpiece but usually settles for just completing the film on time.  During days, he juggles the egos, the eloping crew members, the temperamental stars ("an actress who won't appear in a bathing suit is ludicrous!"), and a multitudes of mishaps that occur on the set; during nights, he continues to worry, even in his sleep.  Occasionally, we in the audience are privy to his thoughts, as when Ferrand ponders, "Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West.  At first you hope for a nice trip.  Soon you just hope to reach your destination!"

Joëlle (Natalie Baye) is Ferrand's trusty continuity girl, modeled after Truffaut's real-life continuity girl, Suzanne Schiffman.  Joëlle is invaluable, staving off disaster on numerous occasions for the production.  She also shares Ferrand's (and Truffaut's) passion for her work with a philosophy that she sums up neatly when she remarks, "I'd drop a guy for a film; I'd never drop a film for a guy!"  Ferrand's producer and partner in suffering is Bertrand (Jean Champion).  Faced with a daily onslaught of production woes, from film lab errors to union rules to harassment from the London insurers, Bertrand can only sigh and note that "the way to make money nowadays is in real estate, not movies.  I stay in it because I love it."  It is, perhaps, a sentiment that Truffaut shared.

The "big" star of Day for Night is, of course, Jacqueline Bisset.  Her commitment to Truffaut's film was a triumphant casting coup, especially considering that Bisset at the time was a very glamorous and rapidly rising Hollywood actress with a regular salary equivalent to Day for Night's entire budget!  Fortunately for Truffaut, Bisset was thrilled at the opportunity to work with him and willingly accepted a rather large salary cut for her role.

Bisset plays Julie Baker, a pretty English actress recovering from a recent nervous breakdown.  Bertrand the producer is worried that Julie may still too emotional, but Ferrand defends her, finding her determined yet fragile, with a "sexy but sad" appearance.  For Ferrand, Julie is perfect for her role in his melodramatic Meet Pamela.  Julie may still feel somewhat insecure, but she gives an honest effort, and ultimately, it is not her, but other members of the cast and crew, who disrupt the production.

Among the trouble-makers is Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who plays Julie's husband in Meet Pamela.  Léaud was one of Truffaut's favorite actors, and in essence, is portraying himself in Day for Night.  Léaud in the early 1970's had a reputation for being somewhat unpredictable and a little impulsive, elements of his personality which are woven directly into the character of Alphonse.  The case can also be made that Léaud is portraying a variant on the character of Antoine Doinel, his most recognizable role from previous Truffaut films.

Alphonse, much like Antoine, has difficulties relating to the opposite sex and seems at times incapable of acting maturely or responsibly.  When trouble arises in his romantic life, Alphonse takes off to race go-carts or otherwise disrupts the shooting schedule.  His girlfriend Lilliane (singer-actress Dani), exasperated with Alphonse, at one point snaps, "He needs a wife, a mistress, a nanny, a nurse, a sister...I can't play all those roles!"  She may very well have been speaking of Antoine Doinel or the real actor who portrayed both characters, Jean-Pierre Léaud.  Nevertheless, Lilliane is not entirely faultless herself; she is rather promiscuous, despite being engaged to Alphonse.  Her continual flirtations with a myriad of crew members naturally drive Alphonse into jealous fits.

The most memorable character in Day for Night, however, is Severine (Valentina Cortese), a slightly over-the-hill Italian actress.  Severine represents the eventual fate of all fading stars, an actress who constantly reminisces over her better days and regrets the gradual crumbling of her talents and her beauty.  Prone to emotional outbursts, she has taken to the bottle to mask her feelings.  Cast opposite Alexander (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a former lover, for Meet Pamela, Severine bemoans the fact that "he's still playing lovers and look at me, I'm only cast as the neglected wife."  As Severine, Valentina Cortese is, in a word, hilarious; she steals nearly every scene in which she appears.

There is one truly priceless sequence early on in which Severine repetitively flubs her lines for Meet Pamela.  Finally, she suggests, "I'll use numbers, the way I do with Fellini," to which Ferrand replies, "In France, we have to say our lines.  See, we're recording direct sound."  It is a good-humored jab at the Italian film industry, which often made its films silently and then post-dubbed the entire soundtrack afterwards.

Eventually, by the end of this sequence, the Meet Pamela set is filled with strategically-hidden cue cards.  Now, instead of forgetting her lines, Severine merely flubs her exit in take after take.  All the meanwhile, Ferrand is the incredibly patient and understanding director, comforting his distressed actress and trying to coax a relaxed performance out of her.  It is hopeless, of course, and everyone eventually gives up to try again another day.

Up until this hilarious sequence, Truffaut still has his audience in suspense, wondering if he can maintain the optimistic but droll spirit of Day for Night from start to finish.  But after this scene (and in pretty much every scene thereafter), it soon becomes apparent that Truffaut is creating something truly magical here, something more than just a movie about a film in production.  He instills in every frame of Day for Night his own undying love for the cinema.  Even within its little dramas or tragedies, Day for Night displays a light-hearted but passionate joie de vivre that is the essence of all Truffaut films.

Day for Night is filled with many delightful scenes.  There is a sequence with a finicky cat that underscores the headaches inherent in working with animal actors.  There are personal, on-set crises which somehow end up in Meet Pamela's script as well (nothing is sacred!), or in a case of life imitating art, may become mirrored from Meet Pamela into the actors' actual lives.  There are the numerous, little backstage romances between cast and crew, all of which ultimately drives the suspicious wife of a hen-pecked crew member to demand, "What is this movie business?  Where everyone sleeps with everyone?"

Yes, Day for Night mocks the many problems that can arise during production.  But it also celebrates the sense of loyalty and camaraderie that can develop between complete strangers; it embraces the on-set dedication and inventiveness that triumphs over obstacles to the process of moviemaking.  A film's cast and crew essentially become family, and no matter what, this "family" will persevere together to complete their film.

When Day for Night premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in spring of 1973, it was declared a grand triumph.  Had it been an official competition entry, it might even have claimed the festival's prestigious Palme d'Or.  Still, Day for Night became a popular, international success for Truffaut, particularly in America, where it earned more money than all the other Truffaut films combined up to that date.  Day for Night also won Truffaut his only Academy Award, an Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1973, and in accepting the Oscar, he humorously thanked the audience: "I'm very happy because Day for Night is about film people like you; it's your trophy.  But if you'll agree, I'll keep it for you."

In a weird Hollywood time warp, the following year Truffaut was again nominated for an Oscar for Day for Night, this time for Best Director (but eventually lost to The Godfather Part II's Francis Ford Coppola).  It is one of the many ironies between life and the cinema, for Truffaut's character, Ferrand, in Day for Night, had dejectedly commented that "The Godfather is showing all over Nice.  It's wiping out every other movie."

There are numerous allusions to other films as well in Day for Night, some obvious and some not.  While prior knowledge of those films is not required at all to enjoy Truffaut's film, they nevertheless serve to emphasize Truffaut's lifelong fondness of the cinema.  It is no coincidence that the love theme to Day for Night only appears in two significant scenes.  One is a tender moment between Alphonse and Julie in Meet Pamela.  The other, most tellingly, occurs as Truffaut's Ferrand excitedly unwraps a gift box.  Inside are the treasures of his world - books about the Hitchcocks, the Bressons, or the Renoirs of cinema, his true loves above all else.  Day for Night is ultimately Truffaut's ode to the cinema, a celebration of the joy and magic of the movies.

Video *** 1/2

Warner Bros. isn't exactly known for releasing many foreign films on DVD, but in this case, the company has done an admirable job.  Day for Night is presented in a matted widescreen format that preserves the original aspect ratio of its theatrical version.  The image quality is mildly soft but has good details and spectacular colors and hues.  Signs of age, such as dust or speckle marks, are kept to a minimum, and the transfer itself is quite solid, with no disagreeable artifacts, bleeding, or image breakup.

Audio ***

Day for Night offers two listening options - the original French or a dismal English-dubbed version.  The English dubbing is about as wretchedly awful as might be expected.  It is simply cruel torture to inflect this soundtrack on any true fan of Truffaut films.  My advice is to stick with the French monaural soundtrack.

Bonus Trivia - If the love theme for Day for Night sounds familiar to Truffaut fans, that is because it was also the love theme used in Truffaut's previous Two English Girls as well!

Features *** 1/2

"Film is a way to struggle against the transience of existence."

Warner Brothers has finally released a DVD worthy of Day for Night.  Most of the features on this disc are short (less than ten minutes in length), but they offer a wealth of fascinating background and wonderful recollections about the experience of making Day for Night.  Some of these features are presented in French, for which English subtitles are provided.

First up is Day for Night: a Conversation with Jacqueline Bisset.  This is, of course, an interview with the ever-lovely Jacqueline Bisset.  Among her many anecdotes are a humorous story of the circumstances by which she nearly missed an opportunity to work on Day for Night.

Next is Day for Night: an Appreciation, a discussion of the film by Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf.  At 17 minutes, it is the longest featurette on the DVD and also the best.  Insdorf spent a lot of time on several of Truffaut's sets during production, and as a Truffaut biographer, she obviously knows quite a lot about the French director.  In this featurette, she talks not only about Truffaut but also about the many talented actors in Day for Night.  She especially singles out Valentina Cortese, an Italian actress who gives the film's best comic performance.  Cortese was in fact a strong favorite when she was nominated in 1974 for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar but, in a typically Academy-style miscarriage of justice, lost to Ingrid Bergman.  The Swedish actress, however was gracious and apologetic in her acceptance speech, directly addressing Cortese, "Please forgive me, Valentina, I didn't mean to."

Insdorf briefly mentions the odd, little earpiece-and-box set that Truffaut's Ferrand wears throughout much of Day for Night.  It looks like a recording device of some sort but is actually an antiquated hearing aid (the film mentions this in an easy-to-miss, throwaway line).  In reality, Truffaut suffered from chronic ear infections as a child and had been dealt a hearing injury from the Second World War.

La Nuit Américaine: the French Connection is a series of four short interview segments offering recollections by former French Truffaut collaborators.  Featured are French star Natalie Baye, singer-actress Dani, actor Bernard Menz, and editor Yann Dedet.  Each describes how he or she was recruited for the film and what life was like on the set of Day for Night during production.  Natalie Baye has become a large star in France since Day for Night, but this film featured her first significant film role.

Insdorf re-appears again in Truffaut in the USA, a look at Truffaut's relationship with the American cinema.  Filmmakers Bob Balaban and Brian dePalma also contribute their own memories of meeting Truffaut on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  While Truffaut never actually made a film in Hollywood, he was one of the most accessible foreign directors and was frequently sought after by Hollywood studios.

Truffaut: a View from the Inside is a vintage featurette offering behind-the-scene glimpses of Truffaut directing Day for Night (and Meet Pamela, too, for that matter).  It is a nice opportunity to see Truffaut in action, and he is not so very different actually directing as he is pretending to be a director in a film.  In short, we can see that the fictional director Ferrand is drawn very much from his real-life counterpart, François Truffaut.

Two interview segments with Truffaut are also included.  Both are in French with subtitles.  The first is from the 1973 Cannes Film festival, and the second is from the 1973 National Society of Film Critics Awards.  The clips are approximately two minutes in length, and Truffaut talks briefly about the significance of the film's title as well as his appreciation of the cinema in general.

Lastly, there is a cast & crew section, an awards section listing the most prestigious awards won by Day for Night, and then an abysmal English-dubbed trailer for the film.  Perhaps it is only fitting that a film about filmmaking should have a dubbed trailer.  Watch the trailer for some laughs (or groans), and then be grateful that Warner Brothers has included the original French soundtrack on this DVD.

Bonus Trivia - Jean-Pierre Léaud, in the 1990's, appeared in another French film about moviemaking - Irma Vep.  This time around, Léaud assumed the role of a frustrated director trying to make a movie worthy of Truffaut!

Summary:

Wow.  Very few films about the movie-making process can compare to Truffaut's amusing yet insightful Day for Night.  It is a wonderful film that displays Truffaut's remarkable talent for transforming a seemingly inconsequential or even mundane subject matter into a joyous celebration of life and art.  Day for Night may well be Truffaut's finest film and easily receives my top recommendation!