These days, it is no longer uncommon to encounter books and articles prophesizing the imminent death of film as a medium. How can the medium that defined the 20th Century have been so thoroughly debased? Was it the alleged resurgence of television, the fact that most cinemas are now clogged with American films designed to sell toys, or the decision to raise cinema prices to the point where the cost of a single ticket could buy you up to thirteen pints of lager?
The rot set in when the film industry started to believe its own hype and see itself as a dream factory. The problem with the concept of a dream factory is that while everyone wants to see their dreams realised, not that many people get excited at the prospect of working in a factory. Thus, the creation of art became secondary to the creation of money and the construction of celebrity. Little wonder that today’s films are more interested in serving as advertising platforms than expressing any kind of beauty or truth. François Truffaut, one of the founding figures of the French New Wave, was someone who wanted to work in a factory and Day for Night is his ode to the power of the cinematic production line.
The film begins with an immaculately staged crowd-scene in which people climb out of subways, walk dogs, drive cars, and exit restaurants while a camera soars above the action. Suddenly, a voice off screen yells ‘cut’ and begins to dress down the extras: People were too slow exiting the subway, the woman walking her dog was slowing down and speeding up for no reason, and the car was about three seconds too slow starting up. The voice commands another take, the action restarts, and suddenly you are aware of all the little mistakes as the off-screen voice directs its extras. This time we not only see the camera as it soars above the crowd, we also see the edges of the buildings and realise that the entire scene was taking place on a set in a studio and that none of it was real.
Aside from highlighting not only the attention to detail required of details and deconstructing the alchemy that gives people standing around a load of cardboard buildings the appearance of real life, the scene also makes you acutely aware of the line between filmmaking that works and filmmaking that results in nothing but an ugly mess. Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine, is all about that line and the magic that flows through it.
The scene we are shown at the beginning of the film turns out to be from a French drama named Meet Pamela. The story is an almost stereotypically French affair dealing with an upper-class family whose eldest son has just got married only for his blushing bride to run off with her father-in-law. The first few snapshots we get of the film are not exactly promising: The woman playing the mother (Valentina Cortese) once had a terribly unhappy love affair with the man playing the father (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and now she spends her time drinking and failing to remember her lines. The one scene we see involving the mother and the son (Jean-Pierre Léaud) comes across as stilted, awkward, and unintentionally incestuous while the film’s internationally-famous leading lady (Jacqueline Bisset) has been hired under duress as she walked off the set of her last film following a cataclysmic nervous breakdown.
Truffaut underlines the wretchedness of the production in dozens of clever little ways including setting up a recurring motif in which the shots created for the fictional film are nowhere near as well-crafted as those created for the film himself. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in which the alcoholic actress playing the mother must deliver a short speech and walk out a door but the door she keeps opening leads to a cupboard and so she gets progressively more upset and drunk before eventually collapsing into an ugly sobbing heap. Aside from being both incredibly funny and immensely sad, the scene also works brilliantly because while the crew are gnashing their teeth about the actress’s inability to deliver her lines and walk out the right door, none of them seem to notice that her speech takes her first into an unlit corner of the set and then around a pillar that momentarily hides her from view mid-sentence. As money men circle the production and problems start stacking up, Truffaut’s cartoonish self-parody begins to worry whether he will ever manage to get the film made, let alone turn this unholy mess into something that is both beautiful and true.
Day for Night is one of the most quietly influential films of all time. Though certainly not the first film to be made about the process of film production, its use of a fictional film-within-a-film as a means of portraying cinema people as flawed and incompetent went on to inspire films as diverse as Paul DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion and The Blair Witch Project. What distinguishes Day for Night from its many imitators is the fact that while Truffaut pulls no punches in his depiction of self-involved actors, passive directors, self-serving producers, and sex-obsessed crew, he never stops believing that great things can come from broken people.
As the film progresses, we begin to learn a little more about both the plot of the film-within-a-film and the lives of the people putting it together. While the original script comes across as terrible, Truffaut’s director keeps stealing lines and ideas from the people around him until suddenly the disaster of the opening act is replaced with a story that not only seems compelling but also connects to the lives of the people are helping to make it into a film. Like a stage magician who keeps his audience distracted, Truffaut allows his fictional characters and projects to unravel before suddenly allowing the audience to notice that the events taking place behind the camera are a perfect reflection of those taking place in front of it: Day into night, ugliness into beauty, and chaos into significance.
Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.
Day for Night is not just an intensely clever, beautifully written, and incredibly thoughtful look at the film industry; it is also one of the warmest and most joyous films to ever come out of French cinema. Day for Night is like taking a bath in liquid sunshine, it will remind you of why film matters.