Friday, December 9, 2016

François Truffaut | La Nuit américaine (Day for Night)

dreams of moviemaking
by Douglas Messerli
François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, and Jean-Louis Richard (writers), François Truffaut (director) La Nuit américaine (Day for Night) / 1973

On the surface François Truffaut’s 1973 film, Day for Night is a loving satire about making films,  starring Truffaut himself as his much put-upon director Ferrand. Just as in Fassbinder’s Beware the Holy Whore, Ferrard’s gathering of actors, makeup artists,  cinematographers, and producer are a motley crew—although not as tightly knit as Fassbinder’s group—who fall in love (Alphonse, played by Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Léaud, with practically every woman he meets), have temporary breakdowns (Séverine, played by Valentina Cortese), take up new sexual partners (the former dashing ladies’ man, Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont, suddenly turns up with a male lover), become pregnant (Stacey, played by Alexandra Stewart), and are even killed (Alexandre, for what gay critic Vito Russo decries as utterly no reason except perhaps that he has turned gay). Strangely, the only figure who doesn’t behave badly is the star, Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has just gone through her own nervous breakdown, yet even she cheats for one night on her doctor husband just to keep Alphonse from leaving the shoot.

     A film developing lab accidently destroys one of the most complex group scenes, sets become unusable, the plot keeps changing, a prop kitten refuses to drink milk out a saucer, and the American producers threaten to pull out funding for the film if it is not made in a limited period of days. 
      Both stars and staff continually go missing, as characters flub lines and attempt to exit through wrong doors. A British insurance company representative (played, unknown to Truffaut, by the author Graham Greene) threatens to pull the plug on the entire project if they attempt to shoot with another actor after Alexandre dies. The script girl runs off with a stuntman.
       Yet the film does get made, as the director likens it to a long voyage which you hope may be joyful but that gradually appears will never end.    
     Besides that, we comprehend that the movie itself, titled Meet Pamela, is a real stinker, a badly plotted soap-opera where the handsome Alphonse marries a beautiful English girl, Julie, who, when he takes her home to meet his family, falls in love with Alphonse’s father, who runs off with his son’s new wife. Everyone ends up badly in the end, turning it into a kind tragedy.
     Despite Ferrand’s love of great directors—beginning as a child with Orson Welles and continuing into the present with Luis Buñuel, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Ernst Lubitsch, Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson—the character, himself, is obviously without much talent. And although he gets his movie finished, we can only wonder for what purpose?
    Perhaps it was just this jarring contradiction that made Jean-Luc Godard walk out the Truffaut movie, calling it a “lie,” and permanently ending his long friendship with Truffaut.
      The director’s ironic detachment from his own art-making, does pose problems for believability; but then Day for Night is not a realist piece, but a slightly sardonic valentine to filmmaking—good and bad—itself. 
      Ferrand is still haunted by his youthful first encounters with the genre, and it is clear that he will  never stop making movies until the producers pull the plug—which one can imagine them  doing if Meet Pamela ever gets released. But it is also interesting that in the imaginary movie that the two desperate lovers, Alphonse’s father and wife, are offstage the two most likeable figures. Alphonse, as his current girlfriend describes him, is a selfish child-man, Séverine is an over-the-hill alcoholic, gradually losing her memory, and even the minor actor Stacey is revealed to be a liar, who has hidden the fact of her pregnancy. Perhaps life does not imitate art after all.

       And, despite his obvious lack of artistic talent, Ferrand is a talented peace-maker, a man who does seem always to have an answer for everything even when he has waded into series of stormy waters way over his head. Like a kind of modern-day Buster Keaton, he must be  admired simply for keeping his calm when everyone around him is so desperate for love and attention that they cannot even think straight. As Alexandre points out, actors are always kissing one another. Is it any wonder that behind every door another affair is lurking?
      If Day for Night is not a great movie, it is a very pleasant romp in the tradition of the far greater 8 ½, the afore-mentioned Fassbinder work, and, of course, Godard’s own Le mélpris, made a decade earlier, and which strangely parallels some of the events, including the car crash death of the central figure of Meet Pamela. No wonder Godard had problems with Truffaut’s much lighter portrait of the movie-making industry.  

Los Angeles, December 9, 2016

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