A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 11, 2016

Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973)

Day for Night has a certain notoriety as the film that caused a rift between the New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. As the story goes, Godard walked out of a screening of Day for Night and charged that Truffaut had a fraudulent, sentimental view of the traditional movie-making that had been their targets in their first features, The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959) and Breathless (Godard, 1960). Godard, the purist, had maintained his radical political leftism from the beginning; Truffaut, who was an unabashed fan of movies no matter what their politics, had not maintained, in Godard's view, a strict enough awareness of his social responsibility as a filmmaker as his career advanced. Godard is, on his own terms, accurate about this aspect of Truffaut's work, so it all boils down to which filmmaker you prefer. As I happen to love them both, I won't take sides. Godard shows me things in movies that I haven't seen anywhere else, while Truffaut's humanity wins me over almost every time. Day for Night was, as it happens, a fair target for Godard's kind of criticism: It was warmly embraced by the establishment that Godard scorned, namely the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave it the best foreign language film Oscar for 1973 and, because of eligibility rules, led a year later to nominations for Truffaut as best director and (with Jean-Louis Richard and Suzanne Schiffman) for best original screenplay, as well as a best supporting actress nomination for Valentina Cortese. (She lost to Ingrid Bergman in Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express, leading to a famous moment in which Bergman blurted out in her acceptance speech that she thought Cortese would win -- and then later expressed her embarrassment that she had slighted the other three nominees in the category.) Day for Night is still one of Truffaut's most enjoyable movies, an account of the difficulties encountered by a director (played by Truffaut himself) in completing a studio-produced melodrama called Meet Pamela. He has to contend with an aging alcoholic actress (Cortese) who can't remember her lines so they have to be posted around the set, and who repeatedly opens the wrong door and walks into a closet during one of her big scenes. There is also a fragile leading lady (Jacqueline Bisset) who is returning to work after a nervous breakdown, an unexpectedly pregnant actress (Alexandra Stewart) in a key supporting role, an aging matinee idol star (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and a neurotic actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) whose life is complicated by his romantic notions about women. Moreover, one of these performers will die before filming ends, making things even more difficult. That the film also bristles with insights into the filmmaking process only makes it a more durable addition to Truffaut's canon. For once, the English title, which refers to the technique of underexposing or filtering the images so that daytime shots appear to be taking place at night, is more suggestive than the French one (La Nuit Américaine is the French phrase for the same process) in evoking the illusion/reality paradox involved in making movies. One additional plus: Georges Delerue's wonderful score.

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